The Big Idea: EC Ambrose
Footnotes, side comments, errata, vague asides — sometimes these don’t matter much. But sometimes, as E.C. Ambrose discovered, they do. And sometimes, as in the case of Drakemaster, you get a book out it!
Sometimes, the big ideas come from very small places…
I was happily reading along for no particular purpose, in a non-fiction book about the Antikythera Mechanism, when I came upon the most intriguing footnote in the history of superscript numerals. The chapter covered other advances in clockworks and gears, and the author clearly loved the material, but knew that it must be somehow restrained lest it take over the main document. The tantalizing footnote referred to a medieval Chinese astronomical clock, and “the vermillion pens of the ladies’ secretarial.”
Such a tasty detail that I pounced like a cat on the vermillion dot of a distant laser, pointing my way to a novel—not that I knew it at the time. The quote turns out to be from Cambridge historian and Sinophile Joseph Needham, who, during the 1950’s, proposed to compile a volume for Cambridge University Press called Science and Civilisation in China.
(I thought I went down rabbit holes! His single proposed volume now consists of an entire library of Chinese historical documents which has produced 27 reference books so far…)
That’s how I discovered the subject of the quote, Su Song’s astronomical clock of about 1090 CE. Polymath Su Song, in the employ of the Northern Song emperor, devised his extraordinary technological wonder to track celestial phenomenon using the finest astronomical instruments of the day, and display the information on a series of dials (complete with moving figures and music) for the purpose of generating highly accurate and detailed horoscopes for the emperor’s children. The “ladies secretarial” recorded this information in red (because of course imperial children are very auspicious, and red must therefore be employed) for future reference.
Naturally, I was hooked! If the footnote was the laser pointer, now I had found the catnip. But a clock, in spite of its ticking, is not a plot.
(Footnote to the footnote discussion: clocks at the time did not tick, actually, because what makes them tick is the escapment mechanism, a newer innovation. One thing that made Su Song’s clock remarkable was his mechanical escapment employing a chain and water buckets to maintain regular intervals.)
One large obstacle to writing into Chinese history is that the region is vast, and its history is extremely deep. Just beginning the research was daunting, and organizing what I found perhaps more so. I needed to learn enough to discover characters and conflicts, and zoom in on the particular experience of a milieu that makes fiction so compelling. The clock, my centerpiece, had been erected in Kaifeng—then the capital of the empire—only to be taken apart again when the imperial family moved south in the face of incursions by nomads from the Steppes. The Jurchen people claimed the region, and the emperor made one of the great blunders in the history of the world. He invited another nomadic tribe sick of living under Jurchen rule to ride south and rout the invaders. This second nation was, of course, the Mongols who would eventually conquer the world’s largest contiguous land empire.
Right. Looks like my quest to define a small niche of history to write into has, instead, expanded exponentially. I found myself overwhelmed again by the scale of the project. When that happens, I know I need to return to the source, the nugget that originally excited me to take on a writing project. In this case, the clock. I stopped broadly exploring the area, and instead began to learn all I could about this very specific place, Kaifeng, the city of the clock. When I learned that the city had rebelled against its Mongol conquerors in 1257, I knew I had my milieu, both time and place, and a several layers of conflict to explore, not only the large, external problem of the occupying army, but also the way that the region’s history would influence the characters. The Mongols, while possessing a well-deserved reputation for desctruction, also recognized talent when they found it, recruiting skilled engineers, craftsmen and bureaucrats into their army.
I developed my cast of characters from several of the cultural groups and classes coming into conflict, looking for a variety of perspectives to illuminate the narrative, and my beloved footnote grew into a historical fantasy novel of epic proportions: Drakemaster. A team of rivals in a desperate race across medieval China to locate a clockwork doomsday device. The rest, in this case, isn’t history—it’s the future.