From the Desk of Alan Smale
Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about … the Plunge.
I learned to swim when I was twelve years old, which means I can still remember what it’s like not to not have that particular skill. To flounder in the water with no clue how to keep myself afloat or make any forward movement. Even once I was a proficient swimmer, I still had difficulty jumping in.
On the edge of the pool I used to say to myself, Just take the Plunge. The water won’t get any warmer while you stand here.
The Plunge takes many forms. I still remember the night before I left England. I had my bags packed, my ticket in hand. Up to that point my entire experience of the United States consisted of a brief visit to Los Angeles, and a half-day layover in Miami after a six-week trip to Chile and Peru. This was during the Pinochet years in Chile, and at the time there was also civil rest in Lima, Peru, with armored cars on every street corner. But somehow Miami felt more dangerous and oppressive to me than either of the South American countries had. I sensed violence there, just below the surface.
Aside from that my experience of the States was second hand, from TV shows like Dallas and Hill Street Blues.. So the night before I emigrated, my future was a blank slate. I knew almost nobody at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, where I’d be working. Had no idea where I’d be living, or what the work would really be like. I had very little to hold onto, and it was an odd feeling.
But I do vividly remember the blank-slate feeling, that sense of the Plunge. And that feeling is returning now that my first novel, Clash of Eagles, comes out on March 17th.
I was writing stories before I could swim. I always knew I wanted to be an author someday. But I only got serious about writing for publication after I came to the States.
In early 2008 I had an idea for a short story, and started writing it. It was the thirteenth century A.D., and the Roman Empire had never fallen. My Roman general, Gaius Publius Marcellinus, was marching into the newly-discovered continent of North America at the head of his 33rd Legion, and all hell was going to break loose around him, first with the Iroquois and then with the Mississippian culture at the great mound city of Cahokia (near where St Louis now stands). Yup, I thought. Two ancient worlds colliding. That’s exactly what I want to write.
By the time I was a couple of scenes into the short story I knew it was actually going to be a novella. I knew the beat points of the story, the conflicts, how the big action scenes would play out, the arc of my protagonist. Long before I finished the novella I realized I couldn’t stop there. I wasn’t done. I’d written full-length novel drafts before, but for those I’d known they were novels right from the start. I’d written short stories and novellas, and been aware that those stories were exactly the length they ought to be. But with “Clash” I had a whole new world to play in. Gaius Marcellinus had crossed the Atlanticus. He had, most decidedly, taken the Plunge. His adventure was just beginning, his future in this strange new continent was – from his perspective – completely unknowable.
But I knew. I already knew the Native American characters he was about to meet; men, women, and children who would become very important to him. The wartime battles and peacetime choices that lay ahead of this veteran legionary would be the making and breaking of him. He would see a whole new world firsthand that he could never have imagined.
The novella, “A Clash of Eagles”, was published in the Panverse Two anthology, edited by Dario Ciriello. By the time it hit the streets in September 2010 I had written most of the novel. I took the first chapters and synopsis to the Taos Toolbox workshop in 2011. Shortly after that, I was shocked to learn that the novella had been selected as a finalist for the Sidewise Award for Alternate History.
Winning that award at the Reno Worldcon in 2011 was a huge confidence booster. All of a sudden I felt like I could fight tigers. Or fierce North American warriors—at least, fight them metaphorically. I came home from Reno and got back to work on the novel, even harder. Perhaps a little obsessively. Yeah, definitely a bit obsessively.
Now, in the moments leading up to the release of Clash of Eagles, here I am again standing on the edge of the pool. Or rather, I feel like Gaius Marcellinus on the unfamiliar shores of the Mare Chesapica, staring at a vast, new continent unfolding before him. I don’t really know what’s about to happen, but I’m ready and willing. I’m going in. I’m excited to take this next Plunge.
Will you take this Plunge with me?