Wednesday, October 9, 2013

David Blixt on Tom Clancy's Form of War

Today we are pleased to welcome David Blixt here to Historical Tapestry as part of the blog tour for his book Colossus: The Four Emperors. Welcome David!


I had planned something else for my chance to post here at Historical Tapestry. But the death of Tom Clancy last week altered my intentions. Because my writing owes him a massive debt.

I get a lot of compliments for my battle scenes. Many reviewers speak of their habit of skipping war writing in novels, as a preface to saying mine kept them engrossed. Part of that I’ll chalk up to my insistence that a fight is about characters, about desire and denial. That’s my theatrical background coming to the fore – everything is about character.

But there’s another reason that I think people enjoy my battles. And that’s entirely due to Tom Clancy. You see, while I often cite influences such as Dunnett, Cornwell, Penman, McCullough, and O’Brian, I owe a huge debt to Mr. Clancy. He taught me how to write a war.

In Historical Fiction, the undisputed master is Bernard Cornwell. He gets into a soldier’s head better than anyone writing today, perhaps since Homer. But that’s just it – his wars are always told from a single viewpoint. We live and die inside his protagonist, seeing the battle from his point of view. For a battle from a single POV, there is no one better.

But when I write battles, I use a larger tapestry – multiple characters coming together on the field to tell a larger story. While I pick one or two to follow regularly, I try to live behind the eyes of many. I have many pieces on my chessboard, and while no one character has all the information needed to see the whole battle, by skipping from viewpoint to viewpoint, the reader does.

This is a technique I owe to Tom Clancy.

Starting with The Hunt For Red October, and running through Patriot Games, Red Storm Rising, Clear And Present Danger, The Sum Of All Fears, and Without Remorse, Clancy holds a master-class in establishing far-flung characters with seemingly disparate lives and bringing them all together for the tension-fraught climax of his novels. (He does this in his later books as well, of course. But these are the ones that had the most impact on me – and also are the novels where he was not entirely ignoring his editors).

Now, lots of authors I love use a similar technique. Sharon Kay Penman and Colleen McCullough both paint on enormous tapestries, and cut from person to person. In the structuring of my novels, they led the way.

But in war, Clancy is a master. He uses a great technique of cross-cutting, just as if he were writing a shooting script for a film. He offers a snippet of fighting or drama, then jumps to another place to show us another piece of the action. An added benefit to this is a building of tension – as the action ramps up, the scenes get shorter and shorter, giving the impression of speed. This style also provide a series of cliffhangers, keeping the reader turning pages to find out what happens to their favorite characters. One of the reasons my books are often complimented as being ‘cinematic’ is due to me aping Clancy in this regard. (Shakespeare does something similar, building to shorter and shorter scenes to build tension. It’s also a technique employed by Dan Brown, though I often find myself chortling at his hyper-dramatic cliffhangers).

Now that I think about it, I have to laugh – in The Four Emperors, I not only use this technique for three major sequences of warfare, but also for a Roman orgy, cross-cutting between the participants and their very different experiences. So I can affirm that it works both for warfare and group sex. I’ll leave the parallels up to others.

I’m risking making my readers too aware of my stylistic choices – it’s like knowing how they did the zero-gravity shots in Gravity, or how a magician pulls off a trick. It can pull you out of the moment, hurt your enjoyment of the piece. But form defines function. For most of my novels, the form has been as important as the plot – even if I know the story, I can’t write until I figure out the structure.

So, while I owe huge debts for plot, scope, character, and more to my fellow historical authors, I owe a massive debt of structure to Tom Clancy.

I’ve included an example from The Four Emperors – not from a battle, exactly (or a sex scene – sorry!), but rather from a street brawl that sets up a coming battle. I chose it because of the technique, and also as an introduction to some of the novel’s main characters (there are a few spoilers, though as we’re dealing with history here, nothing too shocking).

This is from Chapter Twenty-Three, where the army of Emperor Vitellius has lost to the army of General Vespasian. In despair, Vitellius has just tried to renounce the imperial power in the middle of the Roman Forum. The action begins with Vespasian’s brother and nephew hearing this news, and you’ll see the Clancy structure on full display. Enjoy! And thank you, Tom, for helping me find my way to excitement, in your writing, and my own.

“He did what?” demanded Old Sabinus, hurriedly donning his senatorial shoes.

“Tried to abdicate,” reported the senior consul Atticus, having rushed to inform Vespasian’s brother of the news.

“And what happened?”

“The crowd wouldn’t allow it. There was nothing any of us could do,” Atticus added impotently.

“The fool! That unmitigated idiot!” The old man rounded on his younger grandson. “See what comes of too much theatre?”

Sabinus said, “Is the crowd still there?”

“Yes, Titus Flavius.”

“Are they angry? Up in arms?”

“Actually, they seemed more – pitying.”

Old Sabinus rolled his eyes. “Romans! Fickle idiots! If they’re not swayed by their bellies, they’re listening to their emotions! Very well, come along. Gaius Quinctius, you and I will address the crowd, make them see this is what’s good for everyone.” Spotting Clemens and Domitian joining his train of senators, he pointed at Vespasian’s son. “Stay here! The last thing we need is for them to get a look at you chomping at the bit to be a Caesar! Coming, son?”

“Right behind you,” said Sabinus, though he lagged back of the other senators and when they started for the Forum, and darted off down a different cobblestone path.

“Evil old relic,” said Domitian as the gaggle of senators and knights left for the Forum.

“That evil old relic is off to secure your father’s supremacy,” Clemens pointed out fairly. “And he’s right. If he can convince the crowd to accept Vitellius’ abdication, then you’ll have a fourth name by nightfall – Caesar.”

Domitian’s ready grin was evidence that he had considered this, and was not at all opposed to the idea.

  

Amid the crush of revelers, Abigail walked along wearing one of her mistress’ finest gowns, feeling uncomfortable in the soft, expensive fabric. She was much more used to the rough simple clothes she made with her own hands, after the fashion of her people. But it was the Saturnalia. Despite the fact that she and her daughter did not worship Saturn, they were forced to take part in his celebrations.

A few steps behind, Domitia Longina strolled arm-in-arm with her boon companion, Verulana Gratilla, hugely entertained in their roles as slaves-for-a-day. Of course, the bundles they carried were not nearly as heavy as those she and Perel toted all the other days of the year. No, they were full of the little knitted figures that everyone shared at this time of year. The four women were out delivering them as gifts, mostly to men they were interested in making blush.

Last night, Abigail knew, Domitia had run in Vitellius’ naked hunt, and proclaimed her favourite ‘hunter’ was an ex-gladiator who had used her roughly. “My only regret is that my husband was not there to watch.”

Now, walking behind Abigail and Perel, chatting loudly in a way no servant ever would, Domitia spied a large party of senators and knights. “Is that Sabinus? Ecastor, there’s a catch! How did my ninny of a sister manage to let him wriggle out of her net?”

Abigail noted her daughter’s reaction to the name Sabinus. This was the noble Roman who had been the Lord’s instrument, saving her daughter from shame in that floating nightmare Nero had created. Looking at him now, Abigail liked what she saw. He had a good face, reflecting the good man she already knew lived within him.

“No sign of that son of his,” ventured Verulana, giggling like a much younger girl.

“Nor of his cousin, Domitianus,” said Domitia Longina wistfully.

“Are you still mooning over him? Stop wasting your time! He never answered your letters or invitations to dine. He clearly wants nothing to do with you.”

“Which only makes him more attractive,” said Domitia with determination.

“Or homosexual,” said Verulana scandalously. “My, Titus Flavius looks positively grim. Oh look, he’s meeting his father and the consul Atticus. They’re headed for the Forum!”

“To address the crowds!” exclaimed Domitia in delight. “Do you think…?”

“Yes, absolutely! This is the moment! Vitellius will abdicate!”

Domitia’s smile grew wicked. “Wouldn’t it be delicious to join them?” Respectable women were not allowed in the Forum Romanum.

Verulana glowed. “Scandalous. Our husbands would be furious.”

Domitia turned to look at her slaves. “Abigail, Perel, push ahead and join that group of men.”

“Domina,” protested Abigail, “we are only slaves…”

“You can say you were on the way to the markets and got lost. Now obey me!”

“Yes, domina,” bowed Abigail, trusting to the Lord that she and her daughter would not end the day crucified.

  

Sabinus caught up to his father as the party of senators was passing between the Carinae and the Capitoline Hill, just coming to the Basin of Fundanus. “Where have you been?” demanded Old Sabinus.

“Collecting some friends.” Sabinus stepped aside to reveal Mamercus Cornelius Martialus with three more urban centurions – Titus Didius Scaeva, Marcus Aemilius Pacensis, and Sextus Casperius Niger. They all saluted Old Sabinus, their commander. “We gathered the off-duty lads as best we could. Perhaps a hundred, maybe more.”

Old Sabinus huffed. “Does my son think I need a bodyguard?”

“Turnabout, pater. Besides,” added Sabinus, jerking his chin at the Basin of Fundunus where a collection of mean-looking men were lingering, “Vitellius’ friends have thronged the Forum. We need friends of our own.”

Old Sabinus saw the wisdom of this, even if he did not say so. “Just get me to the rostra so I can address the crowd. They’ll see sense.”

But their path into the Forum was blocked almost at once. A burly fellow stood in their path, the scars across his arms branding him a former gladiator. “This is a gathering of patriots, old man.”

“No greater patriot than I, Quirite,” replied Old Sabinus with uncommon respect, calling the man by the common title of citizen. “If you let me pass, I shall prove it.”

“Will you speak for Vitellius?” asked the gladiator suspiciously.

“I certainly will! I’ll say no more than he said this morning.”

That produced a growl from the crowd. “He was duped into that statement – duped by you!”

Old Sabinus shrugged. “If Vitellius is a fool, I did not make him one.”

Leaning in, Sabinus hissed, “Pater, don’t—”

But it was too late, the insult had given the gladiator cause. Poking a beefy finger into the elderly man’s chest, he declared loudly, “You are kin to a traitor, old man!”

Old Sabinus slapped the hand away and spoke in even more ringing tones. “I am a senator of Rome, you clod! I piss on you – you and all your friends! Now let me pass!” With his open hand, he pushed at the man’s shoulder.

The gladiator responded by slapping Old Sabinus across the face.

It was years since anyone had dared to strike the ancient senator. Shameful tears of rage and shock filled his eyes. His toothless mouth flapping incomprehensible curses, Old Sabinus bravely started again to walk into the Forum, shoving the man back.

This time the obstructionist raised a closed fist, only to find his hand engulfed by the larger, hairier hand of Mamercus. The swarthy centurion applied pressure, and the surprised ex-gladiator gasped and sagged to one knee.

That was when the gladiator’s friends came to his aid.

  

Domitia was pushing past Abigail for a better view. “Can you make out what they’re saying?”

Hands on Perel’s shoulders, Verulana stood upon her toes. “They’re accusing Old Sabinus of treason! Oh! Someone has struck him!”

The crowd began to surge in several directions at once. “A fight! A fight!” cried Domitia, hopping in delighted excitement.

“Oh wonderful!” Buffeted this way and that, Verulana used Perel as a shield as she tried to push forward to strike a blow herself.

Domitia shoved Abigail from behind. “Make yourselves useful! Hit someone!”

  

At the first sign of disrespect to Old Sabinus, the men from the urban cohorts joined Mamercus in pushing the Vitellian supporters back. Shoves led to fists, and soon an all-out brawl was taking place on the edge of the Forum.

A knot of Praetorians arrived. Some had fought for Otho, some were new conscripts added by Vitellius. Regardless, they all viewed the city guards with contempt. Their swords scraped free of their scabbards, and suddenly what had been a shoving match became a scene from a gladiatorial game, with blood flying into the air. But unlike in the arena, here only one side was armed.

Yet Praetorians were not hardened soldiers. Mamercus wrested a sword from a white-clad figure and expertly used it to clear a path. “This way!”

Sabinus grabbed the collar of his father’s tunic. “Pater! We must go!”

Unable to retreat due to the crowd, they escaped by the only path left to them – up the clivus Capitolinus, the winding stairs up to the Capitol.

  

“Oh look!” cried Verulana, pointing to a man with a crushed nose, his blood bubbling as he fought for breath.

Abigail and Perel saw their mistress’ expression transform from delight to terror. The sight of blood had killed all excitement in Domitia. The noble lady turned to flee, but they were penned in, with more bodies pushing them towards the fighting ahead.

The direction of the shoving shifted, and the four women found themselves carried up the Capitoline steps. “Run! Run!” shouted Verulana gleefully. Raising her skirts, she turned to offer the Vitellians an obscene pelvic thrust. “Pipinna!” She then fled up the remaining stairs towards an ancient gateway.

  

The marble steps were narrow, curving like a crooked finger near the top. Along one side were porticos of gods and famous Romans topped with cupids. Racing past an image of his own ancestor, the consul Atticus called back curses at the Vitellians: “Your master is an oath-breaker! A pleasure-seeking catamite, and a pawn of lesser men!”

Higher up the stairs, the knot of senators containing Sabinus and his father reached the Capitoline gate. Their slippered feet pounded up the stone ramp that led to the top. Irony of ironies, high above them Nero drove his four-horsed quadriga into the sky, while images of battles and great victories and foreign submissions played out all across the marble monument. This was the Arch of Corbulo.

Passing under the arch, they emerged into the open air of the Mons Capitolinus. Several temples flanked the central altar, and at the north end, towering above the rest, stood the great Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus.

Dodging around massive obelisk and passing the rough stone altar, Sabinus shouted, “Into the Temple!”

Startled Capitoline slaves jumped back and fled from the sudden influx of men as Mamercus waved the senators and city guardsmen up the wide staircase, into the great god’s home.

Two hundred feet deep and slightly less wide, set behind eighteen columns all several times thicker than a man, Jupiter’s temple easily contained the refugees. The thirty foot high ceiling reverberated the frantic gabbling into a deafening cacophony. Of the nearly two hundred men, half were senators and knights, the rest were city guards.

And four were women. Verulana entered the great god’s temple with a flushed and smiling face. “What fun!”

Hair falling from her pins, Domitia ran inside, panting. Perel entered, looking wide-eyed at their surroundings.

Behind her, Abigail came to a sudden stop, her flesh crawling. This was the home of the Roman’s greatest god. The pillars from floor to ceiling were hung round with shields and weapons of varying types – spears, axes, swords, and things she didn’t even have a name for. Gilt letters spelling IOM were everywhere. The god himself was seated in Greek style, fashioned of ivory and gold. He held a thunderbolt high, as if ready to strike her dead.

Abigail had traveled the world with her Symeon, hidden in caves and dined with princes. She had seen the prisons he had inhabited, and lived in the wilds when they were being hunted by their own people. But this was the most frightening place she had ever seen. Would the Lord forgive her presence here? Would the Roman god strike her dead for trespassing? And what about Perel? Quickly Abigail dragged her staring daughter behind a pillar, out of view of the idol, and together they knelt to pray.

“Shut those doors!” commanded Sabinus to the slaves at the two side entrances as he and Mamercus closed the huge main doors with a resounding ‘clang.’

  

The Vitellian mob checked at the temple steps. Unlike Greeks and Jews, Romans did not believe in religious sanctuary. But it was sacrilege to shed human blood within the shrine to Jupiter Best and Greatest. Unsure what to do, the Vitellians opted to pull back and throw up a loose cordon around the bottom of the hill, penning the Flavians at its peak until their unwilling leader could decide what to do with them.

  

With Mamercus at his elbow, Sabinus quickly took charge. He stationed the soldiers of the city cohort at the doors. Gesturing to the shields on the columns, Sabinus ordered the more panicky senators to take them down, just to give them something to do.

Walking through the temple, looking at entrances and trying to formulate a plan, Sabinus paused in surprise when he spied the young Jewess, Domitia’s girl. “Jupiter! Perel, isn’t it?”

Domitia looked up in surprise as the slave girl blushed, clearly surprised and embarrassed to be recognized. “It is, Titus Flavius.”

Domitia said, “You know my girl?”

“We met a couple years ago,” said Sabinus briefly. “What on earth are you doing here?”

“We were enjoying the Saturnalia and got caught in the crowd.”

Sabinus nodded. “I’m sorry you were caught up in our folly.” Then he smiled at Perel. “No quick escape this time, I’m afraid.”

Perel smiled back at him, the asymmetry of her expression at once comic and tragic. “You will think of something, domine.”

“I wish I had your faith.” Sabinus noted Abigail. “Is this..?”

“My mother, Titus Flavius.”

“Well met. Again, I apologize for the circumstances. Forgive me, there are things I must see to.” Sabinus spent the next few minutes rounding up the temple slaves and freedmen, those charged with care of the temples. Temples were not just religious houses. Rome’s religion was inextricably mixed with the government. Thus temples did the state’s business, and civil servants plied their days under the gaze of the divinities that had jurisdiction over their work.

Collecting the servants between two massive pillars, Sabinus issued brisk instructions. “Go into the basement and bring up any usable weapons.” The temple was the repository of hundreds of years of gifts from foreign kings and despots, hoping to make nice with Rome. For once their gifts would prove useful. “Then make sure there is water for everyone, and start storing it in basins, in case they try to cut off the spring. Move!”

As they scampered away, Sabinus leaned close to Mamercus. “How am I doing?”

“Better than this summer,” said the veteran frankly. “There, you were playing the part of commander. Now you’re issuing commands, which is what a commander does.”

Sabinus smiled wanly. “Here, I know what we’re fighting for.”

“Our lives, you mean?” Mamercus laughed. “It does clear the mind, doesn’t it?”

“Senator!” called one of the urban guardsmen. “I think they’ve gone!”

Plucking a spear down from a wall, Sabinus had them open a door. Taking a deep breath, he ventured cautiously out and saw that the mob of Vitellians had retreated from the hilltop. There were at least a thousand Praetorians milling around below.

Mamercus quietly fed suggestions to Sabinus, who issued them as orders. “Marcus Aemilius, take twenty men and guard the gate we came through. Titus Didius, do the same for the gate at the southwest corner. Atticus, please begin searching the other temples for more weapons.”

The ancient wall encircling the hill had seven watchtowers – though by the modern standards they could barely be called towers, hardly higher than the wall itself. Sabinus divided the remaining men from the urban cohort to stand along the wall as look-outs.

In titular command of these cohorts, Old Sabinus stood nodding as though the orders were his own. He was still shocked from his treatment, and dazed from the run up the narrow stone stairs. But as he recovered himself, he began to protest. “Surely when Vitellius hears, he’ll call them off. We had a bargain!”

Sabinus squeezed his father’s shoulder. “Until he comes to his senses, best we defend ourselves and not rely on him.” As Old Sabinus stalked off, muttering, Sabinus wondered how his father had become so small. To Mamercus he said, “My father’s used to getting his way.”

“Don’t I know it,” replied Mamercus wryly. “I sure as certain didn’t want to go north with Otho and some young noble wet behind the ears. But he was right to keep you alive. Rome needs you.”

Sabinus was utterly humbled. But before he could stammer out some reply, Mamercus said, “Now, let’s secure the other gate.”

“What other gate?”

“The one to the Asylum.”

“Cacat!” Sabinus had forgotten the hill’s third entrance. “Let’s take a look.”

The Capitoline Hill was actually two mounds, with a low saddle connecting them. Jupiter’s Temple was on the large southern peak, while the smaller northern peak held temples to lesser gods – including, amusingly, the temple to Venus Erucina, the protectress of whores. The northern mound was called the Arx of the Capitoline, and the dip between the two was known as the Asylum.

Traditionally, the Asylum was a place of inviolable safety, where a man could dwell without fear of assault or detention.

A marble walkway linked the two rises. At the center of the walkway, stairs led down both sides. Sabinus had used them hundreds of times to get from the Forum to the Tiber’s banks. “If I’d been thinking, we could have escaped this way.”

“And been hunted down later, individually,” said Mamercus. “No use second guessing. Besides, no escape now.” At the bottom of the stairs on both sides, Praetorians had taken up watch.

“Find twenty men and seal this gate, too.” Sabinus noticed Mamercus frowning at the ancient wall above them. “What’s the matter?”

“Romulus built this wall. It’s been centuries since there’s been a real threat.”

“Is the wall weak?”

Mamercus slapped a huge block of tufa stone. “Hardly. They knew their business. No, the problem is that.” Mamercus pointed at the private homes that butted up against the wall’s far side.

Still Sabinus didn’t understand the problem. In a city where housing was an ever-growing concern, the state had made a tidy profit leasing this area for private homes. “They’re houses.”

“They’re higher than the wall, and offer a perfect view down. A great place to leap over the wall and take us unawares.”

Sabinus had an ugly moment of shock. “This isn’t very defensible, is it?”

“Not with less than two hundred men,” agreed Mamercus. “Our best hope is what your father said – Vitellius orders them off. That, or their awe of Jupiter will keep them away.”

“It’s pretty to think so,” said Sabinus. “But no one respects the gods anymore.”

About the Tour

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Publication Date: April 7, 2013
Sordelet Ink
Paperback; 406p
ISBN-10: 061578318X

Rome under Nero is a dangerous place. His cruel artistic whims border on madness, and any man who dares rise too high has his wings clipped, with fatal results.

For one family, Nero means either promotion or destruction. While his uncle Vespasian goes off to put down a rebellion in Judea, Titus Flavius Sabinus struggles to walk the perilous line between success and notoriety as he climbs Rome's ladder. When Nero is impaled on his own artistry, the whole world is thrown into chaos and Sabinus must navigate shifting allegiances and murderous alliances as his family tries to survive the year of the Four Emperors.

The second novel in the Colossus series.

About the Author

Author and playwright David Blixt's work is consistently described as "intricate," "taut," and "breathtaking." A writer of Historical Fiction, his novels span the early Roman Empire (the COLOSSUS series, his play EVE OF IDES) to early Renaissance Italy (the STAR-CROSS'D series, including THE MASTER OF VERONA, VOICE OF THE FALCONER, and FORTUNE'S FOOL) up through the Elizabethan era (his delightful espionage comedy HER MAJESTY'S WILL, starring Will Shakespeare and Kit Marlowe as inept spies). His novels combine a love of the theatre with a deep respect for the quirks and passions of history. As the Historical Novel Society said, "Be prepared to burn the midnight oil. It's well worth it." Living in Chicago with his wife and two children, David describes himself as "actor, author, father, husband. In reverse order."

For more about David and his novels, visit


  1. Thoroughly enjoyed the excerpt David, good to have a post backed up with example.

  2. So glad it came through, Margaret. The ending of this novel just tumbled out, and the Clancy technique allowed me build to the emotional ending I had in my heart. Delighted you enjoyed it!

  3. I loved this discussion of your technique--the big tapestry technique and the idea of escalating with ever shorter scenes. I tend to write smaller tapestry but I see a lot of great use and illumination in this discussion. As usual, you're an excellent teacher of writing. Thanks

    1. Blushing. Thank you, Judith. I'm so very glad you enjoyed it. I never think of myself as a teacher of writing. I'm quite honored.

  4. Speaking as a reader who generally skips battle sequences, but enjoys yours, I think your technique is a good one, David. I am a big Tom Clancy fan and was sorry to hear of his passing, but I'm glad his writing techniques live on with through other authors such as yourself.

  5. Really good post with great example of writing technique. I really enjoyed the excerpt - thanks.