So, lately, I spend a lot of time writing and editing. And doing a little research on top of that. The stuff I’m writing now follows a thread and a character (Yusuf) who first appeared in The Ghul of Yazd, a short story I wrote on a whim. That character lives in medieval Islamic Spain, Cordoba, to be precise.
I’m still writing pieces in this vein, so I do a lot of research on 12th century Spain. I read secondary sources (meaning historians looking back at that time), but more and more I’m delving into primary sources (pieces written at the time). I will get more into this primary/secondary divide later, but for now I will only say this: If you’re writing historical fiction or fantasy, the real insights come from primary sources. They’re the only thing that will get you in the mindset of the people who lived all those years ago. Their motivations, hopes and fears. And as a writer, that’s what you really need to know to breathe life into your characters.
One interesting thing I came across in my research was the personage and fiction of El Cid, the great Christian warrior of medieval Spain who became a national myth. El Cid is not my focus at all, but The Song of the Cid comes from that time period. So I thought, why not read it?
And here’s the most interesting thing: I cracked it open and it begins with El Cid being betrayed at the court of the Castilian king and sent into exile.
They spurred their horses, let the reins hang low,
To their right, leaving Vivar, they saw a hooded crow,
But as they reached Burgos it flew to their left.
My Cid shrugged his shoulders and shook his head:
“Let it be a good sign, Alvar Fanez, for now we’re exiles.”
They ride on into the next town, but everyone shuts the doors and goes inside.
My Cid, Ruy Diaz, rode into Burgos.
His sixty men carried spears, hung with banners.
Men and women came out when they appeared;
Merchants and their wives leaned from their windows, staring
Weeping, overcome with sorrow.
And from their lips, all of them, fell the same prayer:
”Oh God, what a wonderful servant, if only he had a decent Master!”
Sound familiar yet? The horsemen ride on through the town, but the people are afraid to act.
They would have been glad to ask him in, but no one dared;
Don Alfonso, the king, was far too angry.
He’d sent the city a notice, received the night before,
Sealed in dramatic passion, and urgent:
My Cid, Ruy Diaz, was to be turned away,
Given nothing. Whoever dared to disobey
Would lose whatever they owned, their eyes would be torn from their heads.
And their bodies and souls would be lost forever.
Right about here it hit me: “Where have I heard this before?” And I realized that this was, essentially, the setup of every cowboy movie I had ever seen: A just and honest man has been done some injustice. He is cast out physically and/or metaphorically from his home. He has taken his horse to the next town where he will seek to right the wrong. But the townsfolk there, though they support him in their hearts, are afraid to do so.
This is almost exactly the plot of the classic High Noon (yeah, its cliché but you should all watch that Cold War classic!). And is similar to the plot for The Magnificent Seven and many, many other classic cowboy movies. In fact, the opening of A Fistful of Dollars, is not too far from the start of The Song of the Cid.
But this is what struck me the most about El Cid: Here’s a radically different culture than ours: medieval Spain. With a completely different political/economic/social/cultural system than ours. And yet the first pages of that story could almost be copied verbatim and used as the start to a cowboy or science fiction or adventure movie today.
I guess as a writer that tells me that these tropes, these structures, these myths tap something deep inside us and don’t change much over time. This is why Gilgamesh, the man who wanted immortality, still touches us. Why Ulysses, who just wants to get home, moves us. Why Arjuna, throwing down his bow and refusing to fight his own kin, unsettles us still. And why a Spanish knight, seeking to simply right the wrongs he suffered at the hands of his enemies at court (in modern parlance, “at the office”), is so moving, 800 years later.
So, note to Writer Self: KEEP IT SIMPLE. The same stories that spoke to people a thousand years ago, speak to people today. Great ideas are important, yes, they always will be. But sometimes, in the pursuit of the latest idea or stylistic innovation, we lose sight of simple, good storytelling. Those primal things (injustice, longing for home, family, the desire to leave something behind after we’re gone) are what really drive human beings. And what drives human beings is what drives fictional characters. And what drives characters is what drives great stories…
Something to think about…
Until next time,