Building the world of The Aldabreshin Compass

while searching through the dusty attics of the hard drive for something else entirely, I came across this piece from 2005, summarizing the research I did for this series. Hopefully of interest to those of you who like to know where we writers find the smoke and mirrors for creating our illusions.

The Aldabreshin Archipelago first appears in The Swordsman’s Oath, second tale of Einarinn. To paint a convincing civilization where autocrats enjoy absolute power within their borders and face ruthless rivals beyond them, I blended what I knew of medieval sub-Saharan states with elements from Japanese, Polynesian and Meso-American history. But far more detail was going to be required to sustain a whole series set among the Archipelagans. Fortunately, I’m a history buff, and with research habits learned as an undergraduate ingrained for life, wider reading was no hardship.

I updated my knowledge of medieval Africa. I read books on the courts of the caliphs, a history of the Arab peoples and another on the rise of Islam. To ensure variety within the Archipelago, I studied the Byzantine Empire, finding influential queens as paradigms for the powerful wives of Aldabreshin warlords. Eunuchs are mentioned in The Swordsman’s Oath, so I found analysis of their role in Byzantium and the Ottoman Empire. The ruthless methods those Emperors used to be rid of surplus sons also suited my purposes. I learned some Persian history and went as far as Moghul India. Archipelagans keep slaves, so I added reading on medieval Islamic servitude to my knowledge of Greek and Roman slavery. With conflict between the mainland and the Archipelago set to be significant, I read more on Mayan and Inca interactions and clashes with Spanish conquistadors, and about the spice trade that first prompted Columbus to sail.

Archipelagans condemn wizardry as abomination, punishable by death. In The Swordsman’s Oath, I’d explained they believe it corrupts the natural order, distorting omens to be read in the flight of birds or conjunctions of stars in the night sky. To build a coherent belief system supporting that, I researched Babylonian and Egyptian astrology, combining that steady-state cosmology with Greek Pre-Socratic philosophy as well as aspects of Middle Ages scholarship where astrology, astronomy and science converged. I read up on prediction and portent from ancient Rome through to New Age mysticism, as well as symbolism, to create an original zodiac, or compass of the heavens.

Needing colours, textures, sounds and sensations to bring everything to life, I visited museums to look at art, artefacts and textiles from the historical cultures I’d researched. I read Lonely Planet and Rough Guides to Indonesia and the Pacific. National Geographic’s CD-Rom archive supplied travellers’ recollections of exotic places and peoples before the advent of mass tourism. The Internet supplied David Attenborough’s books on his Zoo Quest expeditions of the 1950’s and Michael Palin’s travels similarly stimulated my imagination. I discovered a book about Robert Drury, enslaved in Madagascar in the early 1700’s, who published his memoirs in 1729. Friends and family who’d visited Indo-China, Africa and Polynesia were encouraged to share photos and stories.

Don’t worry. You won’t be bored rigid by all this. If first drafts stray into irrelevancies, my test readers and editors soon get me back on track. Research should be like icebergs: only a fraction ever showing above the surface. It’s the telling detail, the vivid image, the logical underpinning for the fantastic briefly revealed that convinces readers that imagined worlds are real. And much as I enjoy doing my research, I know as a reader myself that the finest created world is an empty façade without vibrant characters and an engaging plot. As a writer, that’s where the fun, and the challenge, really starts.

Robert Drury Journal Title Page (1729)
Click here to learn more about Robert Drury

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