There remain about 3500 words to write in the NaNo-draft of Cleopatra’s Ironclads, and last night I did not write them, nor have I written them this morning. Some of them belong to the battle, and some to the epilogue (which I have begun to write).
Instead of writing, I reviewed the description of the run-up to the Battle of Actium, the account by Cassius Dio and the sketch of the dispositions, the armaments, and the strength of each side. I am not sure if this is procrastination or research, and nearly any dissertation student will agree with me that there’s a very fine line between the two. At every point in this novel, I’ve been bedeviled by the conviction that I have no idea what I’m talking about, and this one is no different. On the other hand, research is a fairly reliable muse, if balanced with the imperative to knock out some prose regardless of one’s state of ignorance.
Mark Antony and Cleopatra brought to the battle some of the heaviest ships of the time–massive war galleys with the largest practicable naval rams, and multiple banks of oarsmen. The difficulty: they were undermanned, because of disease and desertion. Even with high-tech help, turning this one around is going to be a close-run thing.
Another point: the historical record does not permit us to reconstruct the battle in precise detail. Even archaeological evidence doesn’t tell us exactly who was when where, only that certain types of debris were deposited at the bottom of the bay.
On the other hand, I count myself as an apprentice of Leo Tolstoy and Nadezhda Durova, in writing battle scenes. What the professional soldier knows is the sheer contingency, randomness, and oddity presented by a real battle. At the close of the nineteenth century, Shaw’s play Arms and the Man shared some little bit of contemporary military tradecraft with its audience (drawn from real military memoirs, as the author pointed out in his Preface): carry chocolate in preference to cartridges, because you never know when you’re going to eat; run away from danger rather than face it head-long; and fear above all else the gung-ho romantic amateur.
Oh yes, and a real battle resembles nothing so much as chaos itself, because once the firing starts you can’t see for the smoke, and the participants are generally sleep-deprived, drunk, and/or gut-sick from dysentery. Not very romantic, but historically factual. And nobody, nobody has a clear view of events, not even Napoleon standing on the hilltop to survey the field of Austerlitz. As Tolstoy pointed out, the official version is made up later, at headquarters.
And I don’t forget that the surviving accounts of this battle were written by the victors.
So now … into the breach. It won’t be perfect, no, it will be chaos. And my draft is Hollywood-implausible, with some number of fortuitous things turning up at the right moment. We’ll revise later, but for now, we write.