The Place Behind The Story

I just flew back from Greece and my wax and feather wings are toast! (I’ve been waiting to do that Icarus joke for quite a while!)

I went to Greece to meet with the Greek publisher of Sons of Zeus and to finish up research for my series the Warrior Trilogy (Thomas Dunne Books). The trilogy is set in the independent city-state of Plataea, a place that was renowned in the ancient world as the site of the glorious defeat of the Persian invaders in 479 BC by the allied Greek armies. But all that’s left of this once proud citadel are ruins marked by an unassuming and generic sign.

What happened to the people of Plataea? In their heyday their city walls were over two miles in circumference, twenty feet tall and guarded by dozens of strong towers. I’ve walked the entire circuit of these crumbling bastions several times and you can’t help but be awed by the area that was encompassed by the place, as well as the beauty of its location at the base of the majestic Kithaeron Mountains. The citadel itself was filled with temples and public buildings, and you can still see the foundations of these buildings amongst the weeds.Today the land around Plataea is fertile and rich with olive trees and vineyards, just like it was 2,500 years ago.

The Plataeans were fiercely independent and controlled the pasture and farmlands in this region north of Athens called Boeotia (the Oxlands). They were also extremely loyal to the Athenians. This loyalty incurred the wrath of the brutal and tyrannical Spartans who were vying with the Athenian Empire for the control of Greece. And so Plataea became trapped–like an olive crushed in the disks of two huge grinding stones– between the two superpowers of the ancient world: Athens and Sparta.

One of the most remarkable things about the site of Plataea today is that nobody ever goes there. Not even Greeks. It is barely mentioned in guidebooks. There is no museum or tourist shop. It’s just a barren field filled with the ruins of walls and guard towers, columns hidden in weeds, and a cemetery with crumbling 2,500-year-old sarcophagi.

And yet this spot is one of the most beautiful and historically important in all of Greece. Here King Xerxes and his massive invasion force were obliterated on the Plataean fields, thus securing the rise of the Athenian democracy, which in turn brought about so many of the ideas and innovations that we in the Western World hold dear. The Parthenon was built post-Persian invasion.

The playwrights Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides and Aristophanes virtually invented drama during this time. Socrates and Plato were alive during this period too, as were the historians Herodotus and Thucydides. And some of the greatest sculptors and artists the world has ever known flourished in the so-called Golden Age. (Click here for my blog about J.R.R. Tolkien and the influence of the ancient Greeks on his writing.)

The Plataeans and their city-state were partially responsible for the remarkable freedom that came after the defeat of the Persians. And for decades their city (and the battlefields in front of their walls) were one of the places that ancient Greeks would visit with awe and reverence, just like we modern people visit sites like Gettysburg and Normandy.

But then something disastrous happened to the Plataeans. First a traitor betrayed the city and opened the gates to their most hated enemy, the Thebans (the events described in Sons of Zeus). The way that the Plataeans survived this attack and withstood the ensuing Spartan siege became the stuff of legends.

Sons of Zeus, an action/adventure set in ancient Greece, is published by Thomas Dunne Books. It follows the young hero Nikias of Plataea as he tries to save his family, city and the woman he loves from genocidal invaders.

You can order it now from and Barnes&Noble as well as independent booksellers (hardcover and ebook). The unabridged audiobook recording is done by Blackstone Audio. Sons of Zeus will be published in Greek this October from Psichogios Publications and in Portuguese from Novo Conceito.

(Relief sculpture made circa 430 BC of a young horseman, found near the city of Plataea. National Museum of Archaeology, Athens. All photographs copyright 2013 by Noble Smith)


Find Those Typoes…err…Typos!

Sons of Zeus, the first episode in my epic trilogy about the bloody onset of the Peloponnesian War, is coming this June 14th in hardcover. This week I will receive the first pass pages in the mail. This is a nearly 500 page (printout) of the manuscript that has been amended with all of the copyeditor’s corrections, as well as my additions and corrections. I will sit down at my desk for three days and pore over this version, comparing it to the previous printout in my possession, making certain that all of the changes were implemented correctly by the person doing the digital typeset version of the book. This should take me about 24 hours of work if I can check 1 page every 2.5 minutes! What’s fascinating is that it’s an old school process at this point: paper and pencil marks and no computers.

Here’s what I think about copyeditors: they are indispensable. But here’s a warning for all authors who have never had a pro copyeditor go over your manuscript. The first time you get a copyedited version of your book back from the publisher, and you see all of the red pencil marks on the pages, you will feel like an illiterate hillbilly and question whether or not you should even be writing a book at all, let alone a trilogy! Almost every author I know has had this experience. The great Patrick O’Brian (author of the Aubrey/Maturin Series) was an aberration. One of O’Brian’s editors told a story about how O’Brian got back the copyedited version of a manuscript for one of his books, and the prickly author was enraged to find that the dastardly copyeditor had altered one thing: he’d changed a semicolon into a comma! (O’Brian promptly changed it back.)

The galleys (the advance press paperback copies) will be printed based on the first pass pages of Sons of Zeus, and these paperback versions of the book will start going out to reviewers at the end of February (and they will contain, no doubt, several typos). I will get to look at the manuscript one more time before it finally goes to the printers. There should be 0 typos in the final version. I hope.

It’s a nerve wracking process, to say the least. I’m always finding typos in books. Now I know why. It’s damned hard to get a perfectly clean copy of a novel. Especially one as long as this one is (over 125k words). My cousin recently read the manuscript and found a typo that had existed in all 20 or so versions of the manuscript: it had existed for about 8 years! Dozens of people have read the book, and nobody had caught it until my cousin (a linguist) saw it. And the typo was on the first page of Chapter 1. Here it is:

Nikias, in stark contract to his grandfather, had altered much over the last decade.

Did you see the typo?  The word I had messed up was contrast. I had accidentally typed contract instead. When everyone read the sentence, their brains (and mine) just changed the c to an s to have it make sense.

I’ve put a massive number of man hours into Sons of Zeus. Not just in the editing process, but also in the research. I read over 100 books about ancient Greece, and even taught myself to read the ancient Greek language. I first started writing the book ten years ago while I was working a feature documentary film about the ancient Greek playwright Euripides. (That film eventually became Jessica Yu’s award-winning Protagonist, which I co-executive produced. Protagonist is one of the few films ever made, outside of Greece, that has spoken dialogue in ancient Greek.)

Sometimes research can mess you up, however. If you become too married to details, your historical fiction (or even fantasy) story can become really boring. The first version of my book was wildly different from the one that is going to be published this June. That first book was, in fact, quite dull. It was like something written by a stuffy college professor. Too full of factoids and digressions where I felt compelled to explain commonplace objects or social customs (or even the details of architecture). I basically threw away that first manuscript of the book and started over from scratch. And then I threw that second version away too. So I’ve actually written about 1,500 pages to get 500 pages.

Once I started on that third version of the book it really came to life. I had done all of the research and I’d finally come up with a voice that was my own. The world that I had been inhabiting in my imagination for so many years had finally gelled. Now I’m 3/4 of the way done with the sequel (Spartans at the Gates) and I can’t seem to type fast enough to keep up with the story that’s pouring out of my brain. I even wrote a five thousand word short story (a prequel to Sons of Zeus) that will be put out as an ebook teaser by my publisher (Thomas Dunne Books) two months before the publication of Sons of Zeus.

This ebook short story is called The One-armed Warrior (see image above) and it’s about how the protagonist of Sons of Zeus makes a very dangerous enemy of an older warrior a year before the action of Sons of Zeus begins. What’s so cool about ebooks is that you can release these short stories, or prequels, or even spinoff tales without the hassle or expense of printing them as a physical book and shipping them off to bookstores. The way publishers are adding ebook bonus materials to their traditionally printed book catalogues is in its infancy. But I think it’s going to be an exciting amalgam of old school and new technology. Someday I hope to have an enhanced ebook version of my trilogy with all of the short stories/supplementary material combined with the three novels.

Just imagine what J.R.R. Tolkien could have done with this technology? He had all of the supplementary materials (his backstory The Silmarillion, his languages, his poems and unfinished tales and appendices). But he had to type everything out by hand on a manual typewriter.* It’s a remarkably tedious process if you’ve ever tried to write a book that way. I learned to type on a manuel typewriter. It’s physically exhausting. Tolkien used to dream that someday he would be wealthy enough from his writing to have a special custom typewriter made that would allow him to type in Elvish script. Alas, he never got to experience the pleasure of creating stories with high-tech typewriters (aka computers), nor did he get to see all of the cool fonts based on the languages of Middle-earth. He would have loved them!

If you are interested in reading The One-armed Warrior, click here to “Like” it. It will be available in a couple of months on Nook, Kobo and Kindle. And I hope you don’t find any typos. Sons of Zeus will be available in print and ebook June 14th in the United States, Brazil and Greece.

*By the way, Christopher Tolkien still owns and works on his father’s typewriter; and he used it to type out the manuscripts for The Silmarillion and the 12-volume History of Middle Earth.

The Ultimate Fighting of the Ancient World

Warriors of the ancient world invented the sport we know of as ultimate fighting. Twenty-five hundred years ago this kind of no-holds-barred contest was called the pankration—a word that translates as “all strengths.” And in the year 500 BC this brutal sport had already been around for centuries.

The pankration was a combination of boxing and wrestling and taught warriors all of the skills they needed to know to stay alive in the crush and chaos of a battle, when sometimes—their spears shattered and their shield walls broken—men had to rely on their hands and feet for survival despite their protective armor.

But pankrators were unarmed and wore no bronze. And they did not use padded gloves when they fought. This was a bloody bare-knuckles brawl with chokeholds, grappling, finger breaking, hair pulling and kicking. The most primal kind of fight. Face-to-face. Mano a mano. In many parts of Greece there were only two rules in pankration bouts: no biting and no eye gouging.

The brutal Spartans, however, tossed all rules aside in their matches, and one can imagine many a maimed Spartan pankrator missing an eye, an ear, or even the tip of a nose. (In martial Sparta, even women were allowed to compete in wrestling matches.) Bouts sometimes ended in death which counted as a victory for the fighter still standing.

Some pankrators protected their teeth with a big gob of tree resin called mastik (from a Greek word meaning to chew—the root of the English “masticate”). The gold colored sap was the world’s first chewing gum. It kept a pankrator’s teeth from smashing together if he received an uppercut to the jaw, and served like a modern-day football player’s mouth guard.

To understand ancient Greek society it helps to have knowledge of the pankration and its importance in their world. The Greeks were lovers of democracy, art, science, philosophy, music and theater. But one of their favorite athletic events was arguably one of the most ferocious and barbaric contests ever invented.

My novel, Sons of Zeus, is the story of a young fighter-in-training who must use all of his skills learned in the pankration to defeat an invasion force bent on destroying everything he knows. It arrives in bookstores and online June 4th, 2013.

Noble Smith’s Novel SONS OF ZEUS Coming In Summer Of 2013 From Thomas Dunne Books

Sons of Zeus is an action-adventure set during the “Pearl Harbor” of ancient Greece—the sneak attack on the democratic city-state of Plataea in 431 BC that ignited the thirty-year-long war between Athens and Sparta.

Nikias, a young Olympic-fighter-in-training, must use all of his skills learned in the arena to save his family, city and the woman he loves from genocidal invaders.

Based on true events, Sons of Zeus is the first episode of Noble Smith’s epic The Warrior Trilogy. It will be published in hardcover on June 4th, 2013 from Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press.