by David Drake
The First Road
Jim Baen became enthusiastic about all sorts of things: human origins; Buffy, the Vampire Slayer; diet supplements which were going to keep him young and healthy even though he ate fast food and refused to exercise; and the Aubrey/Maturin naval series by Patrick O'Brian. He was generally spot on with his enthusiasms.
I'm… more cautious, let's say. "Dave, there's this great series about a cute blond girl who goes around kicking monsters' ass!" might be true (it was), but it wasn't the way to make me want to watch Buffy—which turned out to be just as good as Jim said when I finally did catch an episode.
I was equally doubtful about Patrick O'Brian. It didn't help that I knew Gordy Dickson was so hooked that he read nothing but the Aubrey/Maturin books in his later years, starting over with Master and Commander every time he'd read the series through to the end of the most recent volume. Jim and Gordy were my friends, but neither man struck me as a paragon of good judgment.
And in fairness to my doubts, when Jim was off, he was really off. His nonsense about pills as an alternative to exercise and proper diet killed him at age 62.
I should have been more open to Patrick O'Brian, though. My folks had a slip-cased edition of CS Forester's first three Hornblower novels, which I'd enjoyed by the time I was twelve. When Pinnacle Books (the initial distributor of Tor Books) brought out the complete Hornblower series in the early '80s, Jim devoured the volumes and we burbled happily to one another about what good adventure stories they were.
Thirty years on, I remember Jim chuckling over Admiral Hornblower in the West Indies. From the name 'Hornblower' and the fact the Hornblower had just met an (almost) equally brilliant officer named 'Ramsbottom,' Jim deduced that Forester was gay. Jim made a great deal more out of names than I did (or do), but in this case I believe he caught a joke that I had missed.
That discussion highlights an important aspect of Jim's character: he was straight, but his attitude toward gays (of either gender) was at worst one of amusement. He didn't feel that all life-style choices were equal (and he wouldn't have been my friend if he had), but he did believe in live and let live.
In particular, Jim never objected to gay characters in my fiction. I would have found it difficult to tell stories using a sailing navy as my model without gay sailors.
I mention 'a sailing navy' because as soon as I did read the wonderful Aubrey/Maturin series, I began to wonder whether I could adapt the milieu to space opera. Jim and I discussed it, as we discussed most things. Hornblower knock-offs are common in SF as well as in historical fiction, but neither of us could think of a space opera which paired such equal but very different characters.
I gave the idea a try with a novella for an Honorverse anthology. Jim and I (and Dave Weber, come to think) liked the result, so I went on to With the Lightnings at novel length. When I turned in the second book, Lieutenant Leary, Commanding, then Baen editor Toni Weisskopf asked for a collective title—and the RCN (Republic of Cinnabar Navy) Series was born.
In one sense the RCN Series came from O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin Series. In another and truer way, though, the route began with Jim Baen.
The Second Road
While the ships and naval structures of the RCN series are loosely based on those of the (British) Royal Navy of 1740, the social structure of Cinnabar is closer to that of Late Republican Rome (the 1st century BC) than to 18th century England (though the cultures blend quite well). Furthermore the plots (or the germs that lead to the plots) come almost entirely from classical, not English, history.
I took two years of Latin in high school, mainly because I needed a foreign language and the alternative was Spanish. (I wasn't a driven student, in high school or afterwards). When I found myself completely adrift in the larger environment of university, I returned to Latin not to learn the language but to anchor myself in something from my stable past.
I said I wasn't a driven student. I am obsessive, however. I graduated with Latin as my second (with history) major, more or less by accident, and a deep love of Rome and the classical world.
The big themes of classical history—the Founding of Rome, Alexander the Great, that sort of thing—are fairly well known among the sort people who are likely to be reading my books.There are any number of little-known details, however, which are ideal for somebody like me who prefers to work at small scale anyway.
These are stories which were completely new to me when I began reading classical historians—Herodian, Dio, Polybius, and many less familiar names—rather than modern histories of the classical world. (Come to think, I guess Herodian isn't a household name in most households.) There are wonderful little dramas which didn't decide the fate of the (then) world but which meant life or death to the people involved in them.
A side benefit of this subject matter is that the close reading of sources which my plotting requires uncovers neat bits I would've missed if I'd been reading for fun. Livy's History of Rome has been a favorite of mine for close on fifty years, but the details which became the basis for The Road of Danger had completely escaped me until I started preparing for the novel.
In the past I'd been thinking of the struggle between Rome and Carthage; now it struck me that an incident so minor that it's simply dropped from most English translations of Livy was extremely significant to the people who had to deal with it. One of those people must have been the Carthaginian equivalent of Captain Daniel Leary, RCN.
The Third Road
When I dabbled with writing in high school, I thought that plots were necessary for stories. Well, yes—in the same sense that breathing is necessary for human life. You don't find nearly as many books on How to Breathe as you do on How to Plot, however. (Hmm. Perhaps I would if I frequented the yoga sections of bookstores.)
There are a limited number of plots (as few as seven according to some analysts); and if you don't find one of your own, you can use the plot of an existing story which you like. (Try the Odyssey if you have qualms about stealing from contemporary authors. Writers going back to whoever put together the Arabian Nights have been doing so.)
But while plot needn't be a concern, development—which grows directly from the characters—certainly is. The problem is that every character in a work of fiction is either the writer or another person who has been filtered through the writer's personality.
Which leads me directly to Nam. Viet Nam, Cambodia—and for that matter, Basic Training at Ft Bragg, NC—to be more precise.
Depending on how you look at it, either the David Drake who came back to the World in 1971 was really screwed up, or the fellow who came back was the shattered remnants of the one who'd gone over, stuck together mostly with anger. I personally have come to believe that the second opinion is correct.
Over the years I've gotten myself into better shape than I used to be. (I took pictures of a very nice Byzantine fort at Lambese, Algeria, which Belisarius built with ashlars from the ruin of the Classical Roman city of Lambaesis.) I filter the characters of my RCN space operas through a much gentler and more positive personality than the one which formed those of the Hammer Series and my other Military SF.
That said, I haven't forgotten Nam, and I still use—must use—writing as a staff to guide myself along between the ditches. The RCN series has a positive outlook, but it isn't pablum. I couldn't write fiction which lied about what war is and what it means to those caught up in it, even if I wanted to. And I certainly don't want to.
The Fourth Road
I could have placed the craft of storytelling first, because I learned it from reading stories while I was a child. Since storytelling is the most important aspect of fiction, however, it can properly serve as the climax instead.
Manly Wade Wellman, one of the finest pure storytellers I've ever known, was born in 1903 in Kamundongo, Angola; Manly's father ran the clinic there for a medical charity. Except for Manly and his family, there were no white residents within fifty miles.
Manly's most vivid childhood memory was of the day a ten-year-old herdboy faced the leopard which was stalking his goats and killed it with his spear. That night the boy was seated on the high stool with the leopard's skin, fresh and reeking, draped over his shoulders. From that place of honor the boy doled out a piece of the cat's flesh to every adult male; then the men each in turn chanted a song of praise to the enthroned hero, recounting and embellishing his accomplishment.
This is storytelling as the Cro-Magnons practiced it; this is the essence of fiction. Manly put that lesson to use in everything he wrote, but his understanding was bone-deep rather than intellectual. When we talked about writing he discussed outlining and the germs of real folklore that he worked into his stories. These are important aspects of Manly's fiction, but spell-books like The Long-Lost Friend or The Pow-Wow Book weren't nearly as basic to his success as what he had learned growing up in a Stone Age society.
I was fortunate to become Manly's friend and to hear the stories of Kamundongo which he never wrote down, but he had been teaching me from before we met. The techniques of storytelling shine through everything Manly wrote, and he was only one of the experts from the great age of pulp science fiction whose stories I read—and which stories can still be read and savored. I've learned so much from those writers—
And I hope they would find my RCN Series to be the work of their worthy successor.
Copyright © 2012 by David Drake