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Posts from the ‘British historical novelist’ Category

Writing Novels Set In Different Historical Times And Places, by Julian Stockwin

My two current historical novels are set in very different time periods, over a millennia apart. Pasha is the lastest in my ongoing Kydd Series, one man’s journey from pressed man to admiral in the Great Age of Fighting Sail. The Silk Tree is a standalone, an epic adventure to unravel China’s most guarded secret and set in the time of Emperor Justinian. So why did I tackle two such very diverse writing projects?

The genesis of The Silk Tree lies in the magical city of Istanbul (formerly Constantinople). On location research there for the Kydd Series my wife Kathy discovered a rather lovely silk scarf in the Grand Bazaar. While she was chatting with the merchant I idly wondered just how silk was brought from China to the West. Intrigued, I did some ferreting around and the creative juices started flowing – and I knew I had another story I just had to tell…

My Kydd books are based in the Georgian era, 200-odd years ago. I now know that period pretty well and can mentally go back in time there with reasonable ease. However, when I decided to write The Silk Tree I faced a huge challenge: I would need to get my head around a time not 200 but 1500 years in the past, and across two very different great civilisations – China and Byzantium! I have to admit I was somewhat nervous as to whether I could pull it off. But I do have a secret weapon: my wife Kathy. She’s an ex-magazine editor and we work together as a collaborative team.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned since becoming a wordsmith it’s that all life’s experiences are grist to the mill for a writer. For The Silk Tree I was able to call upon my knowledge of Chinese calligraphy which goes back to the time I lived and worked for some years in Hong Kong. All those hours of dry study of ancient Greek and Latin at grammar school also came in handy!

I guess the hardest part of getting a historical mind set for The Silk Tree (which I believe is vital in writing historical fiction) was to internalise the perceived boundaries of the known world in those far far away times. I had to strip away the trappings of modernity and develop an empathy with my main characters – a canny Greek merchant, Nicander and a fearless Roman legionary, Marius – and understand their personal horizons. This demanded deep research but I always especially enjoy this part of the writing process.

In all fiction, however, there are constants that a writer must bear in mind. The first, I believe, is the centrality of the characters. The reader has to connect with the characters – either love ’em or hate ’em – but feel an emotional nexus of some sort. At least one of the characters must change and develop over the course of the book in a satisfying way. In all my books to date I have had ‘double acts’ in terms of characters. For the Kydd series, it’s Tom Kydd and Nicholas Renzi and in The Silk Tree it’s Nicander and Marius. This is an old literary device, but it’s a useful one.

Another imperative is that the reader needs to be able to pick up on the stakes in the story, otherwise it might as well be non-fiction. A compelling tale sets out the stakes, throws in challenges and then resolves matters to one degree or another at the end of the book.

So what advice would I give to aspiring historical novelists regarding which time to write about? Historical period fashions come and go – some seem to stay quite a while – others are more transient. An established author once told me to write from the heart, not try to follow current trends. He cautioned that if you try to jump on a current bandwagon by the time your book comes out (maybe in two or more years time by the time you actually write it and it gets into print) that particular bandwagon may long since have disappeared.

In the end, of course, it all boils down to passion and commitment. Go with your heart – but be mindful that being a successful author, especially in these challenging times, demands professionalism at all levels.

I feel very privileged to be able to write both an ongoing series set in the Age of Fighting Sail and now, as well, pen an occasional standalone when I come across a story about a pivotal point in history that I just have to tell.

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Julian Stockwin’s author website: www.julianstockwin.com

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Julian Stockwin was a monthly contributor for Writing Historical Novels during 2013. Click on the link to see his previous articles.

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     The Winter Palace (a Novel of the Young Catherine the Great)

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Historical Research And Accuracy In Historical Novels, by Tim Willocks

All that research. Years of it.

What’s the point? How much does it matter? Who cares? Who even notices?

Much more often than not, those who appear to notice or care (they looked it up on Wikipedia, but not in the Bibliotheque Nationale) are wrong.

Personally, as a reader or viewer, I really don’t mind pure fantasies of the past. If anything, the purer the better. I love The Iliad and Richard III. I was actually quite upset to discover that Blood Meridian was precisely based on real events: up until then I had I been in awe of McCarthy’s imagination. I think it’s great that Shakespeare made most of it up. The fact that in La Reine Margot both Isabelle Adjani (39) and Daniel Auteuil (44) played historical characters who were less than half their own ages did not undermine my enjoyment in the least; and since Dumas’s magnificent story is absolute tripe in terms of historical accuracy, there was no point in letting it do so.

The truth is that it is simply not possible to create an accurate portrait of the past. No one can faithfully reproduce the reality of the 1970s, let alone the 1570s. Speaking for myself, I couldn’t recreate last week. If one is rash enough convey the fact that there were no sewers in 1570s Paris, which meant that the streets were asphalted in excrement, readers and reviewers complain about the smell. Just about every great historical fiction ever created, from The Iliad to War and Peace, would fail as an essay from a History undergraduate. Charlton Heston’s Moses – or Michelangelo – is essentially just as good as anyone else’s, in historical terms. All that matters is that the fictional work in question achieve what we hope for from any good art. Since when was art in any form supposed to be ‘accurate’ in such a depressingly pedestrian sense?

So why, I ask myself, have I spent years of grinding toil on research that is, in essence, irrelevant? More to the point, as I contemplate doing it again, can I avoid it? Can I throw wide my window and scream: “I’m not going to take it anymore!”

Re-enter, once again, the truly great Charlton Heston.

Would many historical novelists of a certain age be writing historical novels if not for him? For what it’s worth, I don’t care that he waved a Kentucky rifle at NRA meetings; it’s a small price to pay for Chrysagon and Major Dundee.

I once met Gore Vidal, whose ‘Lincoln’ provoked a fantastically funny (and lengthy) exchange of letters in the NYRB, in which he blithely humiliated a squadron of bleating historians (well worth Googling). Imagine Gore’s horror when, some years after the novel was published, convincing evidence emerged to the effect that Lincoln was bisexual, and wasn’t too careful about concealing the fact. Anyway, Gore told us a story – I suspect one of his party pieces – about working on the script of Ben Hur. One day at Cinecitta he saw an art director who was dressing the set for a feasting scene by putting a bowl of tomatoes on the table. “So I asked if Mrs. Hur was planning to make Ben a bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich.” His point being, of course, that tomatoes came from the New World and didn’t exist in Palestine in 30AD. (Apologies, but ‘CE’ holds no grandeur for me).

This story has haunted me ever since. Did they eat potatoes in Malta in 1565? It’s cutting it fine, I know, but not impossible – and would Gore Vidal review my book and humiliate me as he did the professors from Yale?

Thus at a certain moment I found myself wondering if there was a chiming clock in Paris in 1572, because it would be very useful, plot-wise, for my hero to hear it. After some hours of research I discovered that not only did the clock of the Conciergerie chime, it was in the perfect location to be heard at the moment I needed it. I wrote the scenes. The chimes worked marvellously. A month later I discovered that the chimes were not installed in said clock until 1573, under Henri III. Do I take the chimes out of the novel and re-write three chapters? Is there a single living soul among the few who will ever read the book that will know this exceedingly obscure fact? If they do, will they forgive me?

Gore’s tomato story returned to haunt me, along with the ghost of Charlton Heston and his BLT. I took the chimes out. I struggled to find a way for the hero to see the clock instead of hear it. A convenient gap – a wharf? – between the buildings crowding the right bank of the Seine? Knock the buildings down? (Who would know that they were ever there, except the odd art historian who might remember the paintings thereof?) Have him climb on the roof?

I rewrote it. But should I have? You multiply that kind of problem by at least a hundred time per novel and it becomes a recipe for insanity. Or at least for the urge to write a novel about last week.

Any advice would be welcome.

The illusion of historical ‘realism’, and the whole question of ‘history’ itself as a vast and shifting work of fiction/propaganda, are topics that will have to await future posts.

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Tim Willocks’s author website: www.timwillocks.com

Tim Willocks’s bio page

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     The Winter Palace (a Novel of the Young Catherine the Great)

Writing Historical Novels
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Researching The Trojan War For My Novels, by Glyn Iliffe

Research is all about getting a feel for the period, place and people you are writing about. Get the research right and not only will you convince your reader they’re in Byzantine Rome, Napoleonic France or the middle of the Korean War, you’ll convince yourself. As a writer, there are few feelings more uncomfortable than writing out of your depth, so having confidence in the characters and scenes you’re creating is essential.

It helps, when choosing the period you want to write about, to have a passion for it. This makes researching it a joy rather than a chore. If you love Jacobean Scotland reading about it will be easy and you’ll hoover up the facts; if you don’t, it’ll be hard work and the little details won’t stick. It’ll show in your writing. That isn’t to say you can only write about eras you’re familiar with. A basic fascination with history should be enough to drive research for a book about the past.

There’s also the old adage write what you know. If you intend to pen a novel set during a specific period in history, having a baseline to build on will serve you well. This can be a simple interest fuelled by years of reading around the subject. Such interests are often sparked in childhood, perhaps from listening to granddad’s war stories or watching films on TV. My love of the ancient world started with Jason and the Argonauts and Spartacus, and re-enacting the battles with my Airfix Romans.

The single greatest advantage I had in writing books about the Trojan War was studying Classics at university. Being steeped in a topic for three years is invaluable. You feed off the knowledge of others – from lectures, seminars, books and commentaries – and are surrounded by people who share your passion. All that exposure to a single topic gives you more than just head knowledge. It leaves you with an instinct for your subject. The same deep appreciation is gained by those in re-enacting societies or other historical focus groups.

Whether you have a deep knowledge of the period you want to write about, or just plenty of enthusiasm for a new era in history, you’ll need to establish that feel for period, place and people that I mentioned at the start. When I planned my series of books on the Trojan War, as seen through the experiences of Odysseus, I had already studied Homer and Greek mythology in detail at university. So, from the perspective of retelling the Trojan myths in a single narrative, I re-read many of the texts I was familiar with and tried to come up with ways of bringing the disparate sources together. I also looked at modern summaries of the legends – Robert Graves’s Greek Myths was particularly useful for this – to give me an overview.

This helped me to form the structure of the story and plan all six books in the series. Next came my research about the Bronze Age itself. This was not something I had studied in detail as part of my degree course, so the first thing I did was to look for books that would provide a good historical outline of the period. The best was Michael Wood’s In Search of the Trojan War: a well-written, readily digestible introduction to the available information about the era. From here I was able to follow threads into specific areas of importance for the story I wanted to tell, such as details about sailing, agriculture, religious practice etc.

One point of note here is my reliance on books, rather than the internet, for research. Personally, I think that taking the time to read a book pays dividends in increasing your understanding of a subject or period. This is because books form structured arguments that explore topics in depth, usually backing themselves up with references and evidence. Internet research, on the other hand, frequently involves a trawl of different sources, sometimes with conflicting viewpoints and often based on conjecture or personal opinion. Where the internet comes up trumps, I find, is when topping up research that has already been carried out – a quick fact here and there, useful images or just for refreshing something half-forgotten.

Another important – and enjoyable – aspect of research is to travel to the places you are writing about. This isn’t always an affordable luxury, but I think a book benefits hugely if the writer has visited the place he or she is depicting. Although I have taken a few liberties with my depictions of Ithaca, Delphi and the Peloponnese (based partly on the fact they would have looked different three thousand years ago), having been there, smelled the air, felt the warm wind on my cheek and seen the sun setting over the mountains is something that has helped me to fix those places in my imagination.

Finally, despite advocating the benefits of research, there are a few get-out clauses when writing about the Trojan War. The first is mentioned above, namely that the physical geography of places is very different now to then. Second is that historical facts about the Bronze Age are still limited, in spite of the achievements of archaeologists in recent years, so you’re not writing in a strait jacket – there’s room for a bit of imagination. Another is that what we know about the Trojan War comes from myth, which by its nature goes against the factual approaches of history and archaeology. The most celebrated source of these myths is Homer, who is known for being a mismatch of different eras. So if a Classical era temple suits your needs more than a Bronze Age cave, then you can always say you’re just being “Homeric”!

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Glyn Iliffe’s author website: www.glyniliffe.com

Glyn Iliffe’s bio page

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Month In Review (December 2013)

Writing Historical Novels has reached the end of its final month of articles from the multi-national line-up of novelists for 2013.

You can connect with Writing Historical Novels on Facebook, Twitter, Google+ or Tumblr, or via Novel Writing Quotes on Facebook or Google+.

Articles for December 2013

On Form And Medium For Creative Works by Emma Darwin

Traveling To Research For My Historical Novels by William Dietrich

Random Thoughts About Writing Historical Novels by Stephanie Cowell

Using Language Specific To The Setting Of Your Novel by Anne Perry

Developing A Writing Routine by Adrian Goldsworthy

Writing My Historical Novel ‘The Kirilov Star’ by Mary Nichols

How I Became A Bestselling Historical Novelist by Ben Kane

Being A Disciplined Author by Julian Stockwin

Tips For Writing Historical Novels by Paul Dowswell

Writing Profiles For Your Historical Novel Characters by Michael White

Using Catherine The Great’s Memoirs When Researching My Novel ‘The Winter Palace’ by Eva Stachniak

Historical Novels You Shouldn’t Miss by Gary Worthington

On Book Trailers by Kathleen Benner Duble

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‘Month In Review’ Updates

For more articles on writing novels you can check out Writing Teen Novels and Writing Novels in Australia.

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Writing Profiles For Your Historical Novel Characters, by Michael White

For almost all historical fiction there are two types of character populating the novel or short story. First there is the ‘real life’ person, a character who once lived. The other type is the purely fictional figure you have blended into a plot. Together they will entwine the retelling of real events with imaginary scenarios.

If you have decided to portray your historically real figures as close as possible to the facts, a lot of the work in painting them convincingly will depend on research and your skills of interpretation. The building of fictional characters to interplay with those who once lived is an entirely different matter.

In writing any form of fiction, the author needs to create convincing and believable characters, but when drawing a fictional hero or villain who interacts intimately with ‘real-life’ people from a previous time the task is a little harder than it is when creating a modern person in a modern setting. This is because the fictional figures must work seamlessly with the historical figures in the plot.

One way to ensure that your characters are as consistent, believable and as realistic as possible is to produce what I call a ‘character profile’.

As with the design of the ‘scene collections’ I mentioned in a previous post, you will need to make a trip to the local stationers, but this time you need some notebooks and a set of coloured pens.

To write a character profile you have to put down as much as you can about the lead fictional characters in your story, so have ready a notebook for each of these major characters.

Begin by writing down the basics – their name, where they were born, the names of their parents, what their parents did, how the character was educated, what job they do…

Once the basics are in place and they make sense and fit with the larger scheme of the story, you can start to fill in the details. What was their favourite subject at school? Do they have siblings? What do they do? Where do they live? Extend the family connections to uncles, aunts, nephews, nieces and so on. Who are your characters’ close friends? Who are their enemies?

Soon you will have the notebooks filled with information.  Use the coloured pens to segregate information. Perhaps black for information about the character themselves, red for family connections, blue for friends and green for enemies.

When I come to write the book I find that no more than about five percent of this data filling my notebooks appears on the page.

So what’s the point of the exercise?

The reason for creating character profiles is so that you can get to know the people you are writing about – I call it: ‘meeting the new cast’. It is similar to the process the reader goes through when they begin a new novel. They have to learn about the characters, they need to get to know them. For the creator of the book, the experience is exponentially more intense than it is for the reader receiving a diluted version of what you go through in building your characters.

There is one other very important reason why a writer should spend the time and the energy to create a set of character profiles such as the ones I have described. By writing reams of background detail, the author will know how the character will behave in any given situation. They can ensure that the character reacts to whatever befalls them in a believable and consistent way. If the writer loses consistency, in other words, if the character they have created does not behave within the confines of their personality then that character loses credibility (unless of course there is a very good, carefully explained reason for their sudden personality change). This is a cardinal sin on the part of the writer and it is punished in the most severe way. The reader gives up and closes your book.

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Michael White’s author website: www.michaelwhite.com.au

Michael White’s bio page

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EquinoxThe Medici SecretThe Art of MurderThe Kennedy Conspiracy     Acceptable LossA Secret AlchemyPowder Monkey: Adventures of a Young Sailor

Writing Historical Novels
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Tips For Writing Historical Novels, by Paul Dowswell

As a final entry for these 2013 blogs, here’s what I’ve learned from two decades of writing about history, taking writing classes and writing for Writing Historical Novels.

If you can, visit the places you write about

I know this is impractical for some readers of this blog, but for stirring the imagination, nothing beats the experience of walking in the footsteps of your characters. When I wrote Powder Monkey, about a boy in Nelson’s Navy, I got half a book worth of ideas from a single afternoon aboard an early 19th century frigate. (HMS Trincomalee, in Hartlepool, UK.)

Stray from the mainstream at your peril

My most successful novel (Auslander) is set in Nazi Germany. My least successful (The Cabinet of Curiosities) is set in Renaissance Prague. I loved writing them both. Trusted critics (family members who don’t just say ‘that’s nice’, my editor, my agent…) were very positive about both. The plain fact is that lots of people in the Young Adult market (where I work) enjoy reading about the Nazis. They’re history’s baddest apples after all. On the other hand, most people in this demographic don’t give a fig about the Roman Emperor c.1600 and the first stirrings of the Scientific Revolution.

Don’t be too pedantic in your regard for historical accuracy

‘Chillax, Romulus. Remus is a jerk but there’s no need to waste him.’ That’s plainly wrong (!).

Calling Stalin’s NKVD the NKVD when they were actually the NKGB for three months in the time you’re writing about (April to June 1941) is a calculated decision based on not trying the patience of your reader. It’s a novel you’re writing, not an academic text book.

Not everyone gives a hoot about historical accuracy

Personally, I dislike novels and films that are cavalier about historical accuracy. I know this is a subject many readers and writers of historical fiction care about. I think it’s essential to the credibility of your story. But vast swathes of readers/viewers don’t care. One successful seller in the field I write in has two 12 year old German refugees parachuted back into Nazi Germany ‘on a top secret mission’.

Political correctness is a minefield

We wrestle with this all the time. I’m all in favour of not offending people and I’m happy to avoid historically accurate terms that were fashionable and/or acceptable 200 years ago (or even 30 years ago), but which aren’t now. But the whole PC subject is so sensitive that even discussing it is almost impossible. So, to borrow an awful Americanism ‘Don’t even go there.’ (I like lots of Americanisms too, in case anyone thinks I’m being snooty about Americanisms.)

Publishing is a business

Writing to purge your inner demons, or air your pet interests, is fun and/or therapeutic. By all means do it if you enjoy it. But don’t expect a publisher to want to publish it. (Unless you’re an especially brilliant writer.) Publishers need to publish books they think will repay their investment in:

– your advance

–  the wages of their editors/designers/marketing/publicity/sales people who work on your book, and

– production and distribution costs.

It’s always worth remembering that publishers want a book they think will sell to a readership.

Thank you to the readers of this blog who have taken the trouble to respond to my articles and I wish you all a happy New Year and a successful 2014.

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Paul Dowswell’s author website: www.pauldowswell.co.uk

Paul Dowswel’s bio page

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AuslanderSektion 20Powder Monkey: Adventures of a Young SailorPrison Ship: Adventures of a Young Sailor     Hannibal: Enemy of RomeEscape by Moonlight

Writing Historical Novels
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How I Became A Bestselling Historical Novelist, by Ben Kane

I worked as a veterinarian for sixteen years, from 1992-2008. Like many people who dream of such a career, I started off with a childhood love of animals. Dogs, cats, rabbits, cows – as a boy, it didn’t matter to me. I loved them all. Discovering the gentle, life-affirming James Herriot books helped build up a mental image of being a ‘doctor for animals’, as did the fact that my dad was already in the profession. Alongside my love of all creatures great and small ran a deeply rooted love of history. Don’t ask me where it came from, but I devoured any book I could find about the Romans, the Vikings, the Crusades, the Napoleonic wars, World Wars One and Two – in fact any conflict at all! I still ended up putting veterinary medicine number one on my university application form though. The main reason, from what I can remember, is that although I loved history, I couldn’t see myself as a teacher. There was certainly no concept in my mind of being a writer.

As with most people starting out on a career, my job as a veterinarian took over my life. Straight out of college, I worked in ‘mixed’ practice for nearly three years, which meant dealing with cattle, sheep, horses, dogs and cats. Stints in purely ‘small animal’ and ‘exotic’ (snakes, birds, fish) practice followed in the UK, before the need to travel struck home.

In 1997, I went on a solo trip to the Middle East, following part of the ancient Silk Road. During this trip, I visited many of the ‘stans’, countries which were formerly part of the USSR. In Turkmenistan, I walked the ruins of Merv, an enormous walled city which was attacked and demolished by the Mongols in the 13th Century. As I wandered through the vast site, nearly a mile square, in temperatures of more than 110F, what became evident was that the city’s history was far more ancient. Merv had originally been founded as Antiochia – by Alexander the Great – in the 4th Century BC. Furthermore, Roman prisoners of the battle of Carrhae had been taken there by their captors, the Parthians. Fascinated by this, I did some research upon my return. This confirmed what I had read in Merv, and the seeds of The Forgotten Legion were sown in my mind, and I had my first thoughts of writing a military fiction novel.

After a prolonged (nearly three years) trip around the world, including a period working in Sydney, I returned to the UK in early 2001. The devastating outbreak of Foot & Mouth Disease had just started, and believing it was my duty to help, I volunteered soon afterwards. The job took me to Northumberland, where much of Hadrian’s Wall is situated. During the terrible months of slaughtering animals that followed, I was able to visit many amazing Roman sites on the wall. The stunning locations and little museums fired up my imagination as never before, and I decided to write a novel about the Romans at last.

Over the next six years, I went back into normal veterinary practice, bought a house and settled down somewhat. Crucially though, I also started writing, a process which I quickly grew to love. Despite the long hours – 60+ per week – and ‘on-call’ nights and weekends of my veterinary job, it became an obsession. I wasn’t happy unless I could write every day. During my lunch break, I’d use my laptop in the staff room, my car or a cafe. Several days a week, I’d get up at 5am to do a couple of hours before going to work. For years, most weekends were non-existent except for 12 hours a day of writing.

In early 2006, I was fortunate enough to get signed by my literary agent, whose input and help with my writing skills was enormous. Discarding what I had written up till then – until another day – The Forgotten Legion emerged into the light. In Summer 2007, I signed a 3 book deal with Random House in the UK. By the time of the book’s release in May 2008, I had gone part-time as a veterinarian. By the beginning of 2009, I had given it up altogether. The pressures of family life, writing and a high-octane job were too much to continue forever without the risk of burnout. Now, I find myself ever busier, but as my own boss, doing a job that I utterly love, it’s a much easier thing to manage.

***Write with Ben Kane near Hobart, Australia with Novel Writing Retreats Australia in February 2014

Ben Kane’s author website: www.benkane.net

Ben Kane’s bio page

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Australia (and beyond)

The Forgotten Legion (Forgotten Legion Chronicles)Hannibal: Enemy of RomeSpartacus: The Gladiator     Fortress of Spears (Empire)Auslander

Writing Historical Novels
www.writinghistoricalnovels.com

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