Friday, June 7, 2013

Rule by the Strong

Or the Joys (and Perils) of Research

Ottoman Dagger
© Özgür Güvenç
Shutterstock no. 42791878
This week I took a writing vacation, by which I mean a vacation where I could write, not a vacation from writing. I’ve done this several times in the last few years, and it’s absolute bliss. The usual perks of vacation still apply: time to relax, time to fritter away on the Web looking for cool pictures, time to spend with friends or linger over a meal, no need to bolt out of bed just because the alarm clock has gone off, and so on. And although it took my coworkers until Friday to stop e-mailing me, they eventually did. I’m hoping the silence lasts until Monday, when the deluge is set to resume.

Of course, since I haven’t left home, the small annoyances of life—bills, chores—remain. Still, I have time to deal with them. Because on a writing vacation I don’t, in fact, sleep in. I leap out of bed, eager to find out what my characters will do and say today. If I could afford it, I would spend every day in just this way. Sell about 500 more books per month than I currently do, and I’ll be there.

Until that glorious day arrives, I have the writing vacation. Which makes it rather strange that seven days into my precious nine, I have written not much more than I do on a normal weekend. Did I have so many unpaid bills? Should I have skipped the lunch or dinner party, stayed out of the grocery store, left the clothes unwashed?

No. I have written less than I planned because I realized three days in that the vacation offered a perfect chance to do some research. At the end of six to eight hours of editing, I cannot read a serious article or book and expect anything to stick. These relatively stress-free days offered the perfect occasion to finish that half-read dissertation on steppe politics and revisit various books and articles—all of which have significantly improved my understanding of life in Kazan, Crimea, and the steppe in the 1530s.

Fortunately, nothing I discovered requires major changes to my story. On the contrary, the new information fills in missing pieces (my other big project for the week), explains certain decisions that had not made sense to me before, and firms up the plot’s political spine. It also supplies some much-needed terminology and suggests a possible resolution—more accurately, two possible resolutions—to the central story problem.

Which leaves me wrestling with the decision as to which solution works best. Leadership on the steppe operated according to a fairly simple principle: strength ruled. Khans had to descend from Genghis, but beyond that, most of the time, the strongest candidate eliminated or subordinated rival candidates until he established a personal power base. At that point, he sent his new army on one campaign or raid after another, to secure booty and keep them happy and united. The whole time, the tribes watched him for signs of weakness and, if they found them, tried to figure out who the next victor would be so they could switch sides at the right moment. When the khan died, the struggle resumed among a new set of candidates. The Mughals and Ottomans, also former steppe peoples, used similar tactics.

This much I had known. But I had not fully grasped what that tradition meant for my hero, Ogodai, whose job in life is to separate himself from the learned wisdom of his father, grow beyond the role of competent second-in-command, and make his own decisions—as any leader must.

The antagonist who pushes Ogodai to grow in this way is his older half-brother, Tulpar (named after the Winged Horse of the book’s title). Their father has cast Tulpar off and declared him dead to their family for committing the ultimate steppe sin of disobedience. Tulpar, not surprisingly, has built up a ton of resentment that he’s ready to dump on the first family member unlucky enough to cross his path: Ogodai—who before he has even assimilated the idea that his older brother is not literally dead finds himself locked in a life-or-death struggle for his girl and the tribe he hopes will name him khan. Like any good antagonist, Tulpar represents the risk Ogodai runs if he changes, the part of himself that he has suppressed, and the road that he must take if he is to reach his destiny.


So far, so good, but at some point the life-or-death struggle has to result in a decisive victory for one side or the other. Can both men survive, or does Ogodai sign his own death warrant if he fails to kill his brother? And if he just sticks with the old ways, has he really grown up?

Guess I need another writing vacation to find out.

One more fun fact: The Golden Lynx appears on the Swarthmore College 2013 Summer Reading List.

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