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“Reversal” Challenge

November 19, 2007

One of the ongoing challenges among us historical writers on Absolute Write is what’s come to be called the “reversal”. Basically, this involves writing a scene set in a completely different time period from your main story. I’ve been contemplating mine for some time now. I finally sat down and wrote it last week, when I was too distracted by all the various upheavals going on around me to concentrate on my revisions.

There were a number of time periods I could have chosen. I have a great deal of interest in the 11th century, for example, and a number of novel ideas already percolating around that time period (Norman conquests of England and Sicily, beginnings of the Reconquista in Spain, etc). Any one of those would have required a good deal of research, however, and so I settled on a period with which I am a bit more familiar – the late 4th century A.D.

My “reversal” takes place in the fall of 376 A.D. The Thervingi – who will later come to be known as the Visigoths – have been driven from their ancestral homelands by the Huns and granted asylum in the Roman Empire. Rather than being settled onto new lands – as they were promised – the Visigoths have been herded into a massive refugee camp. Which is where my excerpt begins.

To be honest, I wasn’t expecting much more from this excerpt than a distraction from everything else going on. Imagine my surprise, then, when it was greeted by near-unanimous praise by the other AW frequenters.

I’ve posted the excerpt after the jump, for those who care to read it.

The Roman Province of Moesia (modern day Bulgaria)
September, 376 A.D.


Alaric froze. The sound of the twig snapping beneath his foot echoed in his ears, as loud as a thunderclap. His heart pounded faster in his chest. Someone had heard. Someone must have heard. He looked around, expecting to see heads snapping up, swinging in his direction. None did. Not even the two Roman sentries he’d sneaked past seemed to notice.

Once Alaric was sure no one had heard him, he took a deep breath and pressed on. He kept to the balls of his feet, taking care to avoid stepping on any more of the twigs littering the ground. He wasn’t supposed to be here. His father had expressly forbidden it.

He knew he should turn back, but he couldn’t. Not yet. Not until he had seen it for himself.

Alaric had heard stories about the Gate. He’d heard how the children brought here never returned, how they just…vanished. He hadn’t believed them – only little kids believed them – until his friend Euric had gone missing. Euric’s mother said she didn’t know what had become of him, but Alaric didn’t believe her. He knew what had happened. Euric’s parents had taken him to the Gate. And he had disappeared forever.

At least, that was what Alaric suspected. But he had to be sure. He had to see the Gate for himself.

He crept forward, crouching low, keeping behind stacks of firewood, until he found a suitable vantage point behind a pile of discarded pots.

When he saw the Gate, Alaric blinked in confusion. It looked exactly the same as the seven other gates which ringed the camp. It had the same double doors, the same ramparts, the same ballista towers. The only difference he could see was that there seemed to be more Romans gathered here than at the other gates. They had the well-fed look Alaric had come to associate with Roman soldiers. His father said this was because they kept all the grain for themselves. Alaric didn’t understand. He’d been told the Romans were here to help them settle their new lands. Why, then, did they herd them into this camp and refuse to give them grain?

One of the Romans, an officer, Alaric supposed, extended his arm and made a beckoning motion. Alaric felt a stab of fear. Had the Roman seen him? But then a Gothic family came into view, a father and mother leading a girl Alaric’s age forward by the wrists. The girl wailed and pulled against their grip. Her little feet kicked tufts of dust from the parched ground.

“No!” she screamed. “Mama! No!”

Her parents looked upset. Her mother was sobbing, and her father had the same look Alaric had seen in his own father’s eyes when they’d been forced to leave his grandparents on the northern bank of the Danube to fend for themselves against the Huns. But they refused to look back at their daughter, and continued to drag her toward the Roman officer.

When they came within a dozen paces, the officer held up a hand. The parents stopped, and two Roman soldiers came forward. They took the screaming girl from her parents and dragged her, kicking and screaming, to the officer. He knelt down, grabbed her by the chin, and wrenched her head left, then right. He pried her mouth open and peered at her teeth. Finally, he nodded, and the two soldiers took her by her arms and dragged her through the gate, into the Roman camp beyond.

Alaric stiffened. The stories were true. He felt a cold sensation in his stomach. His arms and legs twitched. He wanted to jump up and run away as fast as his feet could carry him, but he couldn’t. If he ran, he would be noticed. He forced himself to stay still.

A short time later, one of the soldiers came back through the gate. He was carrying something over one shoulder. Alaric thought for a moment it might be the girl, but then the soldier shifted and gave him a glimpse of mottled fur, paws, and a tail. It wasn’t the girl. It was a dog.

Alaric looked closer. The dog wasn’t struggling or barking. Its tail wasn’t even wagging. Rather, it hung limp, swaying gently in time with the soldier’s steps. He realized with a start that it was dead.

He frowned. He didn’t understand what he was seeing. Why would these parents trade their child for a dead dog?

The soldier carried the dog to within a dozen paces of the man and woman and then dropped its body in the dust. The mother jumped slightly when the animal hit the ground.

“Here,” the soldier said, speaking in the Gothic tongue, “meat. Dinner.”

Alaric frowned again. Meat? Dinner? His seven-year-old mind turned inside his head. Not even peasants ate dog meat. Why would these parents trade their child for it?

The realization struck then.

Because they’re starving.

Vomit surged into his throat. His eyes watered. His vision blurred. He couldn’t stay here. He had to get away. He staggered to his feet. And then he saw it. A whole line of parents, waiting their turn to hand their children over to the Romans in exchange for dog meat.

The truth crashed over him. The Romans were starving his people. They were forcing them to surrender not only their dignity, but their children, in order to survive.

He heard a twig snap behind him. He started to turn, but before he could a hand reached out and gripped him by the hair. He found himself wrenched around. His eyes traveled the length of the arm to the face of the man who had grabbed him. It was his father.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. Kay permalink
    November 20, 2007 10:50 pm

    I can understand the praise. Your “reversal” is riveting.

  2. Mary Fran permalink
    November 23, 2007 9:39 am

    Matt, I’t isa great start on something new. I’ll be looking forward to what comes next. Grandma

  3. Matt permalink
    November 28, 2007 7:46 am

    Glad you both liked it.

    I’ve got a ways to go yet on my “War with Hannibal” saga, but the story of Alaric and the Visigoths is one I hope to be able to put down one day.

  4. December 3, 2007 3:01 pm

    the piece was worth all the time it took

    this where i write

    must visit link:..(too good to miss u were ever in love in school)

  5. December 7, 2007 11:00 am

    This captivated me. I’m grateful I stumbled into these woods. I’m currently writing a dual novel with complete plot, characters, etc. in 21st century and also in 18th century so I do “reversals” all the time. Yours is so well-executed it makes me want to read the reversal of the reversal, i.e., your main story. Also, I’ve thought about looking at Absolute Write; your entry has convinced me I ought to. Anyway, thanks for making this fine excerpt available to random readers like me. Keep up the good work! –kay

  6. December 8, 2007 6:00 pm

    I having only read the coments on your “reversal” beg to differ on your opion of the revervles. For me it is not a change in time as you express but a change of character. Granted time and space can help to mold a charcter but The change in charater is the true reverse that audiences pay to watch.

  7. Matt permalink
    December 8, 2007 8:24 pm

    ktrain – I’m not certainly I entirely grasp what you’re getting at. The point of the “reversal” challenge is to get away entirely from the story you’re working on and write an entirely different scene set in an entirely different period using entirely different characters. Much as if, say, Ridley Scott had taken a break from directing Gladiator to direct a 15-minute short film set in 18th-century America.

    The challenge is to break out of one’s comfort zone and do something entirely different. Time and character and period details all play a part of that. In my opinion, though, it’s the research required that makes it difficult.

  8. December 9, 2007 9:19 pm

    Thank you for a great read.

  9. December 9, 2007 9:27 pm

    I agree with you Matt. Nice to stumble upon this blog. To break out from the comfort zone is one way of opening your creative and imaginative dam. But I think there was a kind of mix-up in the terms you and Ktrain were using. I think he was using it in terms of the Aristotelean concept of peripeteia (I’m not sure if that is it or “hamartia”), which points to the “reversal of fortune” the crisis action which inevitably leads to the change of the character. James Joyce calls it “epiphany.” You, on the other hand, talked about the technique. I find the research involved in writing a scene set in another period quite difficult too considering that first of all I have to challenge my imagination to do more than it usually does.

    That being said, I like what you have written. The action is there. 🙂

    Sorry for the long comment.


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