by Julian Stockwin
This post originally appeared on Julian's blog, and can be found here.
My standalone historical fiction The Silk Tree is somewhat of a departure from my seafaring tales but has been a hugely enjoyable project, not the least being the research. As in all historical fiction there is a certain leeway for an author but I firmly believe you have to thoroughly do your homework first and establish what facts are known. Then the historical fiction writer’s creative challenge is to craft a page-turning story, filling in the gaps between what is known to be fact, to offer a plausible and entertaining tale.
The Silk Road (that actual term wasn’t used until the nineteenth century) began very early. An organised camel-based commerce was in place at the time of Alexander the Great’s feats of conquest. There was regular early Roman trade which was interrupted by the Parthians and Persians after which it fell off until the medieval golden age of Marco Polo. It declined terminally when Vasco da Gama found a trading route to the east around Africa in 1498, although the last camel caravans lingered on until modern times. Relics of the Silk Road are still in existence. I visited an ancient caravanserai on the Anatolian plateau and many can still be found dotted along the old routes into Central Asia.
Just what is known of the story of silk? China kept the secret for all of a thousand years and legend there tells of a princess who smuggled eggs out in her headdress when married to a prince of Khotan. In the West accounts generally agree that it was two monks who returned from China in 551 with the secret of silk – I have this from three sources. However these documents vary in their details, each providing tantalising references and with no one version standing out as definitive. My tale is based on these.
Where we do have verifiable historical information I have taken some pains to ensure veracity. Many of my characters in The Silk Tree did exist and it was fascinating researching their lives.
I’ve picked just five to highlight:
Emperor Justinian was a towering figure in antiquity who did much to restore the respect and standing of the Roman Empire in the East, and his codifying of laws is the basis of much jurisprudence today. He was, incidentally, the last emperor to speak Latin as a native first language.
Belisarius was his loyal and gifted military general who some claim was ill-used by a jealous Justinian. It is undisputed that it was largely his genius that allowed Justinian to reclaim much of the Western Roman Empire, giving rise to his nickname of ‘Last of the Romans’.
The warlord-turned emperor Wen Hsuan was a genuinely unpleasant individual, the range of his barbarity grim and shocking. He poisoned the deposed emperor ten months after assuming the throne and his blood-soaked reign lasted for another nine years. Stability only came with the glorious T'ang dynasty 70 years later
Antonina was daughter and granddaughter of charioteers and became an actress, much derided by my historian Procopius for her lewd performances. She oddly became friend and confidante to Theodora, the wife of Justinian and became privy to court secrets. Belisarius saw her and fell in love and she gave up her wild life to follow him in his campaigns.
Ts’ao Fu was a poet of stature in the murderous times before the dawn of the great T’ang dynasty. These men, inheritors of a continuous cultural past, that was well over a thousand years old at this time produced works of great beauty that are still revered to this day.
THE SILK TREE is published by Allison & Busby on Thursday 6 November. If you’re in London on 30 October, you are cordially invited to the Launch Party at Goldsboro Books. We hope you can join Julian to raise a glass to Marius and Nicander’s great adventure!