I believe I have mentioned several times both on this blog and via Twitter that I am active redditor. I don’t think I would be surprising anyone by saying one of the subreddits I frequent is /r/writing, which puts me in touch with other writers all over the world to talk about our craft. Yesterday someone asked, “Do you have a quote/song lyric/poem at the beginning of your book?” The general consensus seemed to be it usually does more harm than good, but I do include a couple of quotes at the start of each of my novels. I read and write historical fiction, and the little extras like epigraphs, maps, and end notes from the author are pretty common in that genre. I went on to list the quotes I used for each book and why I chose them, and within six hours I had received a message from someone who bought one of my books based on my post.
Well, that certainly got my attention!
Several times on this blog I have talked about why I wrote something or how I wrote something, so why not take that random post on reddit and expand upon it here?
Let me begin by saying for each of my three novels to date I have made a point of sourcing two quotes that I believe reference my plot and help fit my book into a larger literary space. For Inca I went with:
“Explain your words so that I can understand them.
They are like a tangled skein.
You should put the threads in order for me.”
— Act 1, Scene I of the Quechua play Ollantay
“Tempus edax rerum.”
Time, the devourer of all things.
I chose them because the book’s premise is an Inca bureaucrat translating his memoirs into Spanish before his story is lost to time. The Inca had a record-keeping system of knotted string called quipus, so using a line from an old Peruvian play about putting the tangled threads in order is a direct reference to what the narrator is doing as he tells his story. For a long time I toyed with the idea of actually calling the book The Tangled Skein, but eventually I decided that would be a very poor choice from a marketing perspective. Still, I know these two quotes have resonated with my readers. A couple years back I even received an email from one man saying he planned to get, “Tempus edax rerum” tattooed on his arm.
That was not an eventuality I envisioned when I first starting writing the book!
For Zulu I chose:
“Whatever happens, we have got
The Maxim gun, and they have not.”
“Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.”
It is a sweet and fitting thing to die for one’s country.
The book is about the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879 told from the Zulu perspective, so I wanted an example of how casually Europeans viewed African wars at the time as well as pointing out that the tragedy of dying for one’s king and country is not exclusive to the European experience. I was actually on the fence about these two for a long while, as the Belloc quote was not specific to the war against the Zulu, and the Horace quote could be taken at face value by a casual reader. I scoured the works of Ian Knight and John Laband looking for a quote from a Zulu that would be better, but in the end I felt anything I could come up with needed some context for the reader to appreciate it fully.
Finally, for my most recent book, Beginning, I went with:
“The sleeper and the dead, how alike they are!
Yet the sleeper wakes up and opens his eyes,
While no one returns from death.
And who can know when the last of his days will come?
When the gods assemble, they decide your fate,
They establish both life and death for you,
But the time of death they do not reveal.”
— Epic of Gilgamesh, Book X
“If history were taught in the form of stories,
it would never be forgotten.”
— Rudyard Kipling
Beginning is a different sort of story than Inca or Zulu. Rather than do the decline and fall of a little-known civilization from their own perspective, I am writing about a man who has been alive since the last Ice Age dictating his life story into a tape recorder while waiting for a mysterious visitor who may finally be the death of him. The Gilgamesh quote speaks to his seeming immortality, and the Kipling quote reflects the narrative structure: History told as stories will live forever. I am very, very happy with these two choices. I hope what I come up with for Middle and End, the other two books in the planned trilogy, are up to the same standards.
Anyway, those are my epigrams and why I chose them. A nice thing about having total control over your work is you can be a little self-indulgent from time to time. I like them, and it seems some people enjoy them as well. Let me know your thoughts in the comments below!
Best regards and happy reading,