Research in Greece



I don’t think that is will come as a surprise to any of you that Greece (along with Italy and England and the Adirondacks and southern Ontario and a few dozen other places) is one of the main inspirations to my writing.  Greece inspired all of my ancient historical novels, which are placed there; in ‘The Green Count,’ my latest William Gold/Chivalry novel, William Gold spends a good deal of time on Lesvos; in my first fantasy Series, the ‘Traitorson’ series, Morea and the lands of the ‘Empire’ are transparently like aspects of the Peloponnese grafted onto other aspects of Thrace and Lesvos and Chios, all appended to Massachusetts.   The upcoming ‘Masters and Mages’ series owes a great deal of terrain and feel to Greece.

The picture at the head of this blog, by the way, is of the ruins of a 14th century castle or fortification that Sarah and I discovered on a walk in north Lesvos.  Three days ago.  It was probably built by Francesco Gattelusi

You may ask ‘why’ Greece is so full of inspiration.  I could toss off a pat literary answer; after all, Pope and Byron and many other English writers have been inspired here.  But my answer has to do with my love of history, and my love of landscape, and the sea, too.  Greece has it all; the island of Lesvos, close to Turkey, may be the ultimate compilation of layers of history I’ve ever found. And to an aspect of experience that I try to convey when I write; I like to touch things, to feel them, to experience them.  Discovering a castle or a ruin for myself (whether it is in a guidebook or not) is more moving than reading about it in a book, or seeing photos.

Like I say, Lesvos is often the wellspring.  Sarah and I came here for our honeymoon; she wanted beaches, I wanted castles, and Lesvos was the place that offered both. So much history; and a meeting place, an instersection, for history….

This year, for example, marks the 650th anniversary of the Green Count’s crusade. To the best of my knowledge, the Green Count never went to Lesvos, but his ally, the pirate/adventurer turned great lord and loyal Byzantine subject, Francesco Gattelusi, formed up his fleet at Lesvos and set forth from here in 1367 to join forces with the Green Count.  Gattelusi had, after a colourful career, been of signal service to Emperor John V, and he received an Imperial bride (John’s sister Maria) and the islands of Lesvos, Lemnos, and a few others as his own principality within a kingdom.   The islands provided him with a rich power base; he hired good mercenaries from Italy to guard his castles (some of them English and Scots) and preyed on Turkish and Arab shipping.  And when his father-in-law the Emperor was taken prisoner (N.B. a touchy point even today) by the Bulgarians, Gattelusi sent his fleet, probably the most powerful in the Eastern Mediterranean, to support the Green Count, who was also related to the Byzantine Emperor.  He seems to have gone himself, the old pirate.  Together, they took all the Turkish-held towns along the European side of the Dardanelles, and as they moved up the coast, they passed Troy (yes, that Troy) before storming Gallipoli (yes, that Gallipoli) in one of the more brilliant feats of arms of the later Middle Ages, Oh, and later that year, 650 years ago, their combined armies and fleets did indeed rescue the Emperor or at least finagle his release (it’s unclear what happened).

Cool story, eh?  Read ‘The Green Count.’ It is out in a few days…

But I digress.  The castle of Mythimna (Molyvos) has layers of stone from Bronze Age foundations to Archaic and Classical and Hellenistic and Roman and Byzantine and Gatelusi and Ottoman stonework; almost all of the Island’s history (if you count in repeairs by the modern Greek government) can be read in the curtain walls of Mythimna Castle. One of the largest naval battles of the Ancient world was fought here (Athens defeated Sparta, and then, in the  best traditions of a democracy, the Athenians voted to execute the commanders of the victorious fleet.) In the same waters, in 1457, or 90 years after the Green Count’s team-up with Francesco Gatelusi, the pope’s strongman, Cardinal Trevisan, defeated a Turkish fleet here; same waters.  (I use all that for Tom Swan, but the events are real.). Just to keep noting the connections, (yes, I loved that show) Trevisan’s Papal fleet was built with the money raised by the sale of indulgences. The indulgences that were printed on Guttenberg‘s press raised the money that funded Trevisan’s fleet and eventually so incensed Martin Luther that Protestantism was born.  But indulgences were the tool that the church had to raise mony for crusade… you knew that, right?

And today I visit the other of my sacred historical places; the towering volcanic dome of Vigla in Skala Eressos.  The dome itself is a world geological formation, registered as such by the UN; atop the hill is a bronze age citadel.  It was fully fortified in the Archaic; Sappho‘s family ruled Eressos from here, and Sappho had her school on this hill.


Note that the statue says  ‘Sappho of Eressos’.  It’s nice when history offers you something easy and connected…


The 14th c. fortress with remnants of the Archaic wall.  And oregano!

Vigla offers the entire panoply of history.  It is beautiful; it features excellent oregano, the best on the island, and that makes for many adventures on the steep, sun-drenched slopes.  Here you can find Archaic pottery and fourteenth century Genoese and Greek and Arab pottery, Hellenistic stars and Athenain blackware.  Here Sappho taught here students…

Some say an army of horsemen,

some of footsoldiers, some of ships,

is the fairest thing on the black earth,

but I say it is what one loves.


I love this stanza…  I realize it’s supposed to be love poetry, but doesn’t is seem possible that Sappho’s partner was a  gamer and there was some mockery involved?

Here gathered the ships of the Ionian Fleet; here the Greek rebels used a fire ship to sink the Turkish Admiral; here, in about 1380, the Gatelousi garrison (of Englishmen, according to local legend) ambushed a Turkish raid and rescued their captives.  History happened here.  The experience of the smell of the flowers, the smell of burning on the hillsides, the flocks of sheep moving on the roads, their bells, the sight of a thousand head of sheep milling around your frightened horse…

This is research.

Tomorrow and Tuesday I’ll be in museums in Mitilini and Athens, looking things up and checking on artifacts I’ll use in my novels; quite probably at the Benaki, looking at costumes for Cold Iron, my next Fantasy novel.  But this is the research I love most… doing things.  Touching the past.

In Greece.



Studying Fiore in the ruins of Mythymna


Ok, I admit it.  I just liked the title’s sound.

My wife Sarah and I are on vacation in Greece.  Vacation, for us, means beaches and sun… and research.  I write about Greece, and I was just fortunate enough to land a new historical fiction contract with Orion to write a pair of books about the Hellenistic Achaean hero, Philipoemen, who is probably the greatest soldier of whom you’ve never heard.

But that’s another story.  This blog is mostly about the study of martial arts, and my personal favorite master, Fiore di Liberi.  And about my all–too—usual rant, about practice.

I’m on vacation, and I’m practicing.  There is a place, just up the hill from me, where you are standing in what was almost certainly the agora of ancient Mythymna, a city now utterly destroyed, but once great enough to be a member of the Ionian revolt, to have hoplites and warships, and dancers and potters and all the other marks of Aetolian civilization.

And I thought that I’d amuse you with the ‘how’s of practicing on vacation.

First, I need  sword.  In this case, my sword came from Mark Vickers of Saint George’s Armoury in the UK.  He shipped it to my hotel. (The best hotel in the world; The Sea Horse of Molyvos!)  I’ll re-sell his excellent sword to one of our Hoplologia students when I get home; that way I didn’t have to ship it to Greece AND I don’t have to pay exhorbitant shipping rates to get it home; it’ll travel as baggage.

The sword is excellent, by the way.  Superb, even.


Second, I need a place to practice.  Now, this may suprise you, but I feel about sword practice almost exactly the way my friends who are fanatics about Yoga feel; that is, I would like my sword-practice spot to be beautiful.  (I would wager almost anything that Japanese has a word for ‘sword practice spot’).  Aesthetics matter, and so do safety, privacy, and space.  I don’t mind uneven grond’ I like to practice moving on uneven ground.  Gym floors and dance studios don’t teach you what the grass and mud in the lists will be like.


Third, I need time.  Time not just to execute some practice, but to enjoy it.  OK– this is easy; I’m on vacation.  But I still like morning; the earlier the better. You may choose other options.  And to be fair, last night there were Greek friends and ouzo and tsipouro…

(So I side note on travel… there was a pretty big earthquake two days ago, centered about 40KM from here.  We’re all fine; 150 houese fell, but the electricity and wifi are a little wonky, so the photo that should have been here, with a private beach under a 14th century castle ruin… wil have to wait a week.  I can’t get it to load.  And, also, a woman lost her life in the earthquake.  It’s not trivial.)

I digress.  The practice itself has two stages; forms, which Japanese martial arts call ‘kata’, and which I suspect were always an important type of practice, not least because in the pre-modern world there were very fe ‘blunts’ and most swordspeople only had a sharp; and cutting.

Cutting?  With a blunt?

You might be surpised, if you haven’t tried it, how well you can cut with a blunt sword.  I admit that you will not want to cut tatami mats or railroad ties, but cutting at fennel stalks and thistles and various other standing dead vegetation in the Greek countryside can help with accuracy and speed of cut, and it’s fun.  A dried thistle head, cut exactly, will explode in  avery satisfactory display; a fennel stalk will show the power and consistency of your cut.

(Again, there was a nice photo to be seen here, but I can’t load it.  Apologies)

I find that because of the sun, the time I have on vacation, the aesthetics of the place, and maybe even the quality of the sword, I practice longer and harder than I do in my daily routine at home.  I detect flaws; I have the accuity to concentrate on foot work errors and precision of delivery of cuts…

The Torneo del Cigno Bianco in Verona is just a year away.  I’m definetely not getting younger, so I’ll have to work on getting better.

One more thing, while we’re on Fiore; my friend and teacher Greg Mele and his Freelance Academy Press are crowdfunding an authoriatative text of Fiore di Liberi’s most accessible manuscript.  You need a copy to study this art.  You can find the crowdsource here, and help us get this published.  Thanks!

Back to vacation..  And research… tomorrow I’ll talk about travel and research.  And walking and sailing.  And new castles…


Review of The Dread Wyrm by Miles Cameron


One of my favorite reviews of all time.

Every Day Should Be Tuesday

The Traitor Son Cycle might be the best epic fantasy series ongoing right now. Cameron is known for his historical fiction (published as Christian Cameron), and he is really good at the things you would expect him to be good at. There is a lot of what I’ve seen called “vambrace porn.” Which has a certain negative connotation, but Cameron shows the rich tapestry of medieval life in a way fantasy all too rarely does. The battle scenes—and there are a lot of them, in the series and in this book—are phenomenal—tense, chaotic, and bloody. The character list is long, and those characters are distinct and think like people from a very different time. As the story blooms into an epic, the main characters grow and the minor characters flesh out. And the story takes a distinctly fantastic turn as godlike beings begin to take a more direct hand. Those…

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Come to Greece this Fall. With me…



Hello, blog readers.  This is my bi-annual ‘Pen and Sword’ tour blog (see the past one here).  This fall, from November 6th to the 17th, 2017, thirty people will tour Greece and Bulgaria… with me.  (Second prize two weeks… wait…)

This will be our third outing.  Last two times we’ve visited the Peloponnese, and gone to such amazing places as Delphi, Mycenae and Mystra. (Not much to see at Sparta, really).


This years tour will visit Thessaloniki, second city of the Byzantine Empire, and use it as a jumping off point to visit all the newly discovered Macedonian tombs and the superb museum at Vergina.  Thanks to a professional Greek guide (with a PhD in Archaeology, so no, you don’t have to listen to me…) as well as to my friend Giannis Kadaglou, we’ll get ‘behind the scenes’ looks at some amazing artifacts, many of which, I admit, feature in my books. We’ll also visit Byzantine and Frankish sites in the area before heading east into the rising sun, and changing eras.  After a visit to Amphipolis, site a major battle of the Peloponnesian War, we’ll go to Alexandroupolis and visit ancient Greek and Thracian sites and then work our way north to Mesembria in Bulgaria, covering many of the sites of the Green Count’s crusade (it’s the subject of my latest historical novel, called, by no coincidence, ‘The Green Count‘ and out in July.

Facebook post

What are these tours like?  Well, first, they are arranged by a professional tour operator, who just happens to be my friend Aliki Hamosfakidou of Dolfin Hellas.  She is not just a tour operator; she helped facilitate the first reenactment of the Battle of Marathon, and she’s done yeoman service to historical writing over the years. Anyway, we stay in four and five star hotels, and we live well and eat excellent food and drink really good wine. at least in part thanks to our resident wine steward, Jamie Harrison.

In addition to good food and wine, we’ll go out at night, not to ‘tourist places’, but to some tavernas and other excitements.  We go listen to music; I happen to love Greek music, and my friend Giannis plays it, so this is not necessarily what you expect to hear…

We visit museums and historical sites every day, and we travel around in a bus that is more like a land yacht.  I confess that the first year, I thought of the bus as a terrible thing… a tourist bus?  Like a nightmare…

Nope.  It’s a fantastic way to have conversations and discussions or even a nap between sites. And it makes the whole operation flexible; our guides have a habit of saying ‘of course, there is a Frankish castle no one visits up there,’ and then we all shout a bit, and then the bus takes us there.  Give or take half a mile of steep rock.

And then….


There is internationally acclaimed historical archer Chris Verwijmeren of the Netherlands demonstrating how to shoot from behind a hoplite’s shield… he will be our archery demonstrator, and teacher, this year!  And there’s Smaro, who has probably the best ancient Greek women’s impression in the world, and Jevon Garrett and me… in Greek kit…

This year, we’ll take a whole day to have a bunch of skilled reenactors, including me and about 1/3 of the people on the tour, to do demonstrations of everything from weapons to cooking.  You can participate to whatever extent you like, up to and including borrowing kit and getting dressed up and shooting bows and what have you.  (Not required, however.  Be not afraid). We’ll do our demonstrations at an un-restored Byzantine Castle of the mid 14th c. (that is also a location in both Green Count and the newest William Gold, Sword of Justice.  Blatant advertisement there.)

Probably worth noting, if you are a fantasy fan, that Greece, Greek art, and Greek military history provide a lot of background for both of my fantasy series…  the castle in Thrace where we’ll play with weapons is the place from which Gabriel and Michael rescue the Emperor in ‘Fell Sword.’  For example.

Italy and Greece 2014 1380.jpg

But wait, that’s not all… for those that wish, there are swordplay lessons every morning.  This year we’ll do Italian arming sword, with some forays into Greek hoplite fighting with both sword and spear.

Delphi swords.jpg

There’s Mike Brennan and Harriet Richert learning Arming sword, Manciolino style, in the Vale of Delphi in 2014 after an epic night of dancing and…drinking…

At Mesembria, a few of us will kit out as knights and have a small deed of arms in commemoration of the Green Count…


(I admit I reuse this photo as often as I can…)

And finally, we’ll visit Varna, in Bulgaria, and visit a large Medieval reenactment there.  A few of us will participate (you can too, if you want to) and everyone else will get great seats and a good dinner….

The trip starts and ends at Thessaloniki.  You have to get yourself there (not included in the tour price) by 6 November and you depart on 17 November.  The trip is ten full days and costs 1400 Euros all in double occupancy or a little more if you want a room to yourself.  (1755 euros).  At one hundred forty euros a day, all in, with meals (not wine) and hotel, bus, tickets to sites, guide, swordplay, reenacting…

There are about ten slots left.

If you are interested, contact Aliki ASAP at

And contact me on Facebook so I can add you to the FB group.  It’s fun; lots of people come back year after year….

Fantasy and History: Writing Battle



I have been asked many times what the difference is between writing about historical battles and fantasy battles.  I suspect I’m going to disappoint you all; especially anyone who sees either genre as special and unique, and say that to me, they are often very similar.  There are differences; for example, considering the effect of a dragon on a medieval battlefield is virtually the definition of ‘speculative fiction’ and trying to imagine the impact of reliable aviation (as in, a hippogrif, or allied wyverns) on logistics or reconnaissance in a  medieval environment is almost as challenging.

But for me, the writer, both kinds of battle scenes are based on experience.  The experience comes to me in different ways; lived experience, like conducting electronic warfare in an aging S-3 Viking;

Military Career

reenactment experience, like commanding a thousand men (and women) in a recreation of a battle…


Or second hand experience, like reading a period account; perhaps Froissart‘s description of Otterburn or a detailed battlefield analysis by a modern historian, whether from Osprey or from an archaeological site survey.  Sometimes experience mixes them; certainly the deepest study I’ve ever made of a single battle was my study of Plataea in 479 BCE; I walked the battlefield many times in person, but that’s not like having been int he battle; I’ve done a fair amount of reenacting in the 480 BCE period, but that’s till not the same as being there; I’ve read almost every word written on the subject, from Herodotus to modern PhD dissertations…


All the usual suspects make writing about battle especially challenging.  Anyone who watches the History Channel or has seen a documentary on the Second World War or the war in Iraq or even recent fighting against ISIS has to be aware that every survivor of an intense combat experience has a different story of events; sometimes they even have different orders of occurrence, so that what seems to be someones magisterial, factual account of the Battle of Gettysburg may later appear to be heavily edited or rationalized.  I have now read, for example, about forty first hand accounts of the first three days on the Somme; the extremely different levels of artillery preparation and the different German reactions meant that some British units were decimated while others moved briskly, even gloriously, forward to their objectives, giving different men starkly unique points of view about the same battle for the same piece of ground.

Alongside the difficulty of capturing ‘what really happened’ is, to me, the excitement and the problem of capturing ‘why it really happened.’  Battles; that is, the sort of decisive battles beloved of writers like me and wargamers and reenactors, are comparatively rare events.  Despite what many writers would have you believe, a battle is not at all the ‘natural result’ of a military campaign.  To give a few famous examples; after Poitiers, the French went to great lengths to avoid decisive field actions against the English; in the American Revolution, the nascent American army was very cautious in engaging the British field armies after White Plains and Brandywine; almost no one these days wants a stand-up decisive battle with tanks and air deployed against a US/NATO force.  Roman and Byzantine armies marched endlessly around enemy terrain without being offered battle on any number of occasions.  It is virtually a truism in military history that a major battle requires the commanders of both sides to believe that they have a decisive superiority in men, or material, or moral, and one of them is almost inevitably wrong.

And because one of them is wrong, there’s a story there; a story of character, of intellect, or anger or foolishness or vanity; really,a ll the things that go into good character writing.  And, as any gamer knows, armies themselves have character, although not always the colourful and enjoyable character they appear to have when painted in 28mm.  To understand why the french lost at Azincourt, for example, it is essential to understand a lot about French politics, about the mindset of the French chivalry, about…history.

And in a fantasy novel, most of the same rules apply or at least they ought to.  Small, plucky warbands should not try to face giant armies of evil unless there are real, tactical reasons to do so; fleets stay in port when faced with unequal odds unless they have no other choice. Leonidas of Sparta led what is arguably the most famous dire last stand in history for complex political reasons (beautifully captured by Steven Pressfield, in his superb novel ‘Gates of Fire’ and if you have not read it, you should.).  Leonidas did not merely stroll out one day, full of Spartan bravado, and elect to sacrifice himself and his state’s elite regiment for vanity.

Likewise, when Phormio led his outnumbered triremes to victory against Sparta, he did so from necessity, and after doing all the things a good storybook hero does; concentrating on morale, on training, and good pay, on tactical advantage. (Eventually, I hope someone will pay me to write a book about Phormio, one of my heroes.).

Even when more balanced forces clash, the events that lead up to the day of battle are often so utterly determinant of the outcome that they really are more important to the story than the actual moments of conflict; the poem ‘For the want of a nail’ pretty much summarizes my views on military history.  The devil remains in details, whether of study, of experience, or of preparation for the fight.

One of the easiest things to write is battlefield magic in a fantasy setting.  To quote my friend and fellow reenactor and gamer, Stephan Callahan, ‘Battlefield magic is just artillery that walks.’  This is almost exactly true.  In the Red Knight series, I have tried to play with other kinds of battlefield magic; a spell that cuts bowstrings or snaps bows or rusts swords or heats armour…all of those sound effective, but really, given and reasonable matrix of magical ‘reality’ surely as soon as some smart lass comes up with a spell to superheat iron, someone else comes p with a rune to protect the iron; after all, that sort of ‘technological’ give and take seems to appear in every period of military history that we have enough data to study.

I did get a great deal of pleasure out of using my experience in EW (electronic warfare) and ASW (anti-submarine warfare) in writing Plague do Swords.  My experience of carrier landings and my time as an amateur falconer were combined to give what I hope the reader perceives as ‘realistic’ views on flying a hippogriff off a medieval round ship. I tried to imagine how magic, the emanation of magical power and the propagation of such emanations might work int he physical world for detection of distant enemy casters at work, even for targeting.  I believe that the scene in which Morgon Mortirmir helps boil water for laundry and thus draws the enemy sea monsters to a fight is one of the most frequently queried and asked about in all the RK books; what the reader was supposed to catch was that by casting, Mortirmir revealed his position…  I spent time working out how, if a magical wave front moved in water the way sound does, the monsters would detect it, but that’s still roughly based on the real world.  I used to spend a lot of time thinking about sonar… and radar…

Plague oif swords

One last comment.  Years ago, I received a very nice piece of ‘fan mail’ from an Australian SAS veteran.  He said a number of nice things and then went on to say something like ‘…but you must know perfectly well that most of the intimacy of actual combat is in the black and not really possible to remember.’  Right; I admit it; no real warrior or soldier could remember all the details of hand-to-hand combat that readers like to see.  Further to that, there is an artificiality to the notion of military leadership, especially on the battlefield; I could name you examples of times where I suspect a general or leader claimed a brilliant tactic after the event, but at the time, depended utterly on luck and the toughness of his men to get him through the hour. There are a great many things that, even in a small action, no one can ever know.

But I’ll close with my last similarity between the battle genres; they are both fiction.  I don’t mean they are ‘lies.’  I mean that, just as a great character  novel like ‘Middlemarch’ or ‘Wuthering Heights’ uses a fictitious story to speak to some real things, so a good ‘battle’ novel can use fiction to explore what might have happened on a day in hell. Complete with character and motivation and plot.

And, sometimes, dragons.