Building a Mystery: Crafting an Ancient World, Part 1

It’s hard to say where, exactly, my fascination with the ancient world began. My earliest memories of this fascination lie in my repeated readings of Greek mythology during my childhood, which would put it somewhere around age 7 or 8, but something tells me that it predates even that. I wish I could recall. But somewhere in there, I became enthralled with both the ancient world as it truly existed and an ancient world created entirely in my head. Today I know that so much of what fascinates me is the world that exists in the gaps of our data – for example, what did humanity lose when the Library of Alexandria underwent its decline? What did the life of Archimedes really look like? Did humanity really undergo a singular flood that contributes to the many myths of the ancient world (I believe so, based on some geological evidence)?

Those are the kinds of questions that really fire up my imagination, and lay the groundwork for what I feel are interesting stories. It’s almost a butterfly effect: if, for example, the flood really referred to an ancient war between two angelic races that ended in the destruction of much of the antediluvian world – then what? Where do we go from there? The answer began to build itself up as I brainstormed The Corridors of the Dead and the rest of the Among the Dead trilogy. 

I talk about this because I’m now crafting the prologue to City of the Dead, in which we’re granted our first glimpse at that antediluvian world as I imagined it. I’m fascinated with this world, and could quite easily write an entire book set during that period (and likely will – I have a few visions bouncing around involving a prequel starring Grabbe, of all people). The thing is, I had to come up with a coherent vision of this past that would at least match up with some of our existing knowledge of the period. I also seized upon some things that we know existed during the Greek and Roman eras – for instance, much of the technology in the world of the Watchers seems like steampunk because we know that Hero of Alexandria created steam-powered devices as early as 10 AD, and there are rumors of machines even earlier than that.

On a side note – Hero also created the first vending machine, the first windmill, and the first automaton. Fascinating guy and well worth reading about.

So I tried to imagine a fallen world that laid somewhere on the technology scale between the days of the industrial revolution and our world. So, for example, they have very basic cathode-ray monitors and simple computing devices that can output to those, but when they stumble across an LCD screen (from an even more ancient civilization – it will make sense in the context of the series), it looks like foreign technology. They also have helicopters and modified zeppelins, but haven’t quite perfected our more traditional wings. This provided enough of a template to extrapolate more of what that world would look like.

But, of course, I had to draw the boundaries of that world, and the prologue is set on ancient Antarctica, which of course wasn’t officially found until much, much later. This posed an interesting problem: within the series, the Watchers held dominion over the entire world, not just the ancient world’s frame of reference. How could these beings who knew the shape of the world and the overall map have existed, and then that knowledge was lost? Well, the flood provided something of a scouring mechanism, but of course knowledge would always leak through.

Then I remembered Maps of the Ancient Sea Kings by Charles Hapgood, a book discussing the sources of the famous (or infamous) Piri Reis map. In the book:

Hapgood claims this and other maps support a theory of global exploration by a pre-classical undiscovered civilization. He supports this with an analysis of the mathematics of ancient maps and of their accuracy, which he says surpassed instrumentation available at the time of the map’s drafting.


Hapgood argued that owing to the map being assembled from components, the Caribbean section was rotated nearly 90° from the top of South America. He attributed this to either copying from a polar projection, or to fit in the space available by hinging the map at that location and giving it an “alternate north”, of which other examples are known in maps of the era.

Bingo. The map is valid – Hapgood’s theory? Couldn’t say for certain. But it doesn’t need to be valid for fiction. It just has to work and provide an interesting framework. It does both. I’ll talk more about my “theories” on the antediluvian world in my next entry – and say a little more about Alexandria and its importance to the series and future works.

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  1. Good stuff, Jonathan. I’ve always had an interest in the ancient world, too. I find your take on it interesting and unique.

  2. Great stuff! It’s one of the things I love about writing. The What If’s take over and you can fill in the gaps however you want. I love your ideas. Great post!

  3. Our fascinations face opposite directions! I am endlessly intrigued by the future, not as much in the technological sense as in the moral/ethical stance of a humanity in possession of god-like abilities. This post reminds me that there are just as many wonders behind as in front of us!

  4. Interesting stuff. God speed, my friend. I also like the idea of mixing the worlds, past, present, and anywhere in between or yet to come.

    “But it doesn’t need to be valid for fiction. It just has to work and provide an interesting framework”- ha ha. So true. For my students, I talk about an “interior logic” when it comes to sci-fi/fantasy/horror, etc… It doesn’t have to be a logic that we understand, but even the most fantastic of worlds has rules that it has to follow.

    Paul D Dail A horror writer’s not necessarily horrific blog

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