Happy Saturnalia!

I've wished a few people a happy Saturnalia recently, and discovered some don't know what it is. So here is a quick run down on the real celebration for this time of year.

Saturnalia was the Roman festival in honor of...you guessed it...Saturn, the god of the harvest. The festival sits more or less on top of the winter solstice, if you happen to be in the northern hemisphere, when winter turns and crops soon begin to grow once more.

During Saturnalia friends would give each other presents. There was much merry-making, partying, eating and drinking. Sound familiar?

It was the time of Misrule. Slaves were allowed to dress and behave as freed men, even permitted to drink and gamble. They could lounge around the house and give orders to their owners. The slave owners served a banguet to their slaves. You can imagine how much the slaves would have enjoyed that.

Common sense dictates the slaves did not make too much of their one week of lordship, because if they did, their masters would have the next 51 weeks to exact revenge. Chances are it was, fundamentally, an official holiday for all slaves. Not that the owners would have noticed; they would have been too wiped by their own celebrations.

Saturnalia began on December 17th and went for a week. It was only a couple of days originally, but the festival just kept getting longer and longer because everyone loved it so much. It reached the point where two Roman Emporers even tried to reduce the holiday, but everyone ignored the boring old guys and kept partying.

Saturnalia did not include Christmas trees, by the way. Christmas trees originated in pagan Germany, associated with the winter solstice festival Yule, and seem to have spread into the English speaking world via marriage between the English royal family and German nobility in the late 1700s. Subsequently during the Peninsular War, Wellington's forces included the King's Own German Legion, German cavalry fighting for England, who probably spread the custom to the commoners.

The Greeks, weirdly, had no equivalent celebration I know of for the winter solstice. The closest were the Lenaea, which was held at the beginning of winter and included a major arts festival, and the Kronia, which was held on the 12th Hekatombaion, which was in Spring or Summer. Despite the radically different date, the Kronia was the exact equivalent of Saturnalia. It included master/slave role reversal and was in honor of Kronus, the Greek harvest god.

Experts (which means not me!) seem to believe Jesus was actually rather unlikely to have been born at Christmas, plumping mostly for some time in Spring. As Christianity became the dominant religion, people remained unwilling to give up the immensely popular Saturnalia, so the date was adopted for Christmas.

So as you celebrate Christmas this year, spare a thought for the poor god Saturn, who's mostly out in the cold these days.

Io Saturnalia!

Things are getting weird

That post on anal impalement got SEVEN TIMES more page views than anything else I ever did.

I'm seriously worried about you people.

Anal Impalement

One of the more gruesome - and therefore fun - parts of writing crime is learning the different ways you can die. So, today's post is going to be about: anal impalement. Warning: this post may be upsetting to some.

If you got here on a Google search for a more salacious type of anal impalement, you're going to be disappointed. Anal impalement was not a good way to relax. It was a popular means of state execution across the middle east. The Hittites, Assyrians, Egyptians and Persians all practiced it.

The picture is a detail from a neo-Assyrian frieze in the British Museum, which shows Judaeans being impaled after a siege.

There were several variations of impalement. The pole might be pushed through someone's body, as appears to be the case in the picture on the left, or through the vagina, or anus. Going through the body was generally a fast death, so that version was probably only used for displaying a corpse. The vagina system was only available for half the populace, and therefore the most common system was probably anal impalement.

You're probably imagining a sharpened wooden spike being pushed up, but you'd be wrong. You wanted the pole to be blunt, to avoid piercing any organs and killing the victim too quickly. The entire point was to give the victim plenty of time to regret his or her crimes. Here's how it worked:

A smooth, thick pole with a narrowed, but blunt, top end would be embedded in the ground. If you think of a width you can barely get the fingers of both hands around, you're probably about right. The height of the pole is carefully adjusted so the top is slightly higher than the victim's behind, when standing on tiptoes. It's a bit like hanging, where you adjust the rope length for the weight of the victim, but in this case we adjust the pole for height.

The pole and the entry point are then smeared with fat or grease. The victim is held above the pole and placed down on it. If the width doesn't quite fit, that's not a problem; simply use a knife to slit from the anus towards the genitals until we have a snug fit. Now the victim is lowered down until they can stand on their own feet on tiptoes.

You see why the pole height varies per person. The pole is in, and the victim can't step off because even on tippy toes, too much of the pole is inside, but to keep it from going further in, the victim has to stand there, and stand, and stand. For days. They can't keep this up forever. Eventually their feet slip a trifle, or they sag, and the pole slips further in. Because it's blunt, it pushes organs to the side as it penetrates. With every slippage, there's a tear and a little more blood loss, weakening the victim, making it harder to stand, so the pole pushes further in, and so on in a vicious cycle. The grease and fat and blood trickling down the pole would have attracted flies and other insects, which would have eaten their way into the wound to add to the torture.

Whingey, bleeding heart, soft-on-crime liberals began to complain that anal impalement was too cruel. (I can't imagine why). So they introduced the soft option of crucifixion. Crucifixion was an instant hit and eventually replaced anal impalement altogether, until it was revived centuries later by that well known traditionalist, Vlad the Impaler.

There is no record of the Greeks ever using impalement, though their mortal enemies the Persians were certainly using it in Classical times. However, the father of Pericles, a man called Xanthippus, did crucify a particularly obnoxious Persian officer during the wars. (The officer had it coming: he'd robbed a temple sanctuary, and when he was captured, tried to bribe his way out of trouble).

It's interesting to think that if Jesus had been born just a few hundred years earlier, today's most common Christian symbol would be missing its cross-beam, and much more wince-worthy.

The Fireman - Electric Arguments

Back in 1993, two anonymous musicians calling themselves The Fireman released an album of highly experimental electronic dance music through an indy label. The album was called Strawberries Oceans Ships Forest. It was well received but didn't make the slightest splash. Then in 1998 The Fireman reappeared with another electronic dance music album called Rushes. It was better received than the first, but also didn't chart, not surprisingly since it too was rather experimental. (Personally, I thought SOSF better than Rushes, but whatever).

Then The Fireman was outed as being Paul McCartney and a guy called Youth, who I'd never heard of. They'd just wanted to play around without any fuss. After all, McCartney doing electronica? Who'd believe it?

Okay, I admit to being a huge Beatles fan. This got my attention.

The Fireman released their third album last week, called Electric Arguments, and since there's no longer any point in hiding who they are, this album includes vocals, which the first two didn't since you could hardly hide McCartney if he's singing.

Electric Arguments is the best thing McCartney's done since Band On The Run.

I'd assumed Paul was done for after he released Memory Almost Full earlier this year. But then I thought, fair enough; the guy's 66 years old now and has (had) his personal problems. He's allowed to release something soporific now he's in his dotage.

Electric Arguments proves I was wrong. It's full of energy. It has a raw sound. Every track was completed in a single day. It's still a little bit experimental, but it's a lot more commercial album than the previous two. There were places where I thought as I listened, this is what the Beatles might have become.

The pick of the songs are Sing The Changes, Lifelong Passion, Light From Your Lighthouse, and Nothing Too Much Just Out Of Sight. Any of the four could have appeared on a Beatles album and not been out of place.

Lifelong Passion sounds like something that might have appeared at the back of Revolver, the album the Beatles did before Sgt. Peppers. Lifelong Passion has a beat and harmony that's mildly reminiscent of their Indian period. In fact, as I listened, I kept waiting for Harrison to chime in with his sitar. It also has a Beatley harmonica hidden in the background.

Sing The Changes is probably the most commercial of the tracks and is more Wingsy than Beatley, very uplifting, bouncy and optimistic.

Light From Your Lighthouse, sounds like one of those jokey Beatles songs that Harrison tended to go for. Very American gospel bluesy.

Nothing Too Much Just Out Of Sight sounds like it came straight off the White Album. In fact, I wish it had, because it would have been far better placed there than some of the stuff the Beatles were doing at that time. The song sounds like the playing and singing of a 20 year old. I hope I have that much energy when I'm 66. (Hmmm...When I'm 66...might make a good song title).

How on earth did McCartney go from the deadly Memory Almost Full to this? I think what's happened is, McCartney left to himself tends to polish things to perfection, and drains plasma from the music as he does it. Lennon is known to have been impatient in recording, so that McCartney had to finish a lot of the songs while Lennon egged him to move on. The balance came out right.

In Youth, McCartney seems to have found someone who won't let him rework something to death, so Youth is delivering the same sort of counter-balance McCartney got before, and that and the speed they're working at, and the willingness to take risk, *really* improves the music. Someone needs to give Youth a medal.

Summary: It's good! The best thing McCartney's done in a long time and worth a listen.

The Great Garos, Garum, Worcestershire Debate

I made the mistake of claiming on twitter to know everything there was to know about Ancient Greek fish sauce. I guess that's why I'm a twit. So by popular demand (that's you, Mr Cameron) here is my short article on garos, garum, and Worcestershire sauce.

As with many things, first came the Greeks. They had a salty fish sauce called garos (γαροσ). Since there was a fish called garos, or garon, in Greek, it's a fair bet the sauce was made mostly from that. I've been unable to discover what fish garos actually was. Not to worry, I can fudge it in my stories (but don't let Janet know that...I'll tell her I'm using the Greek word for authentic atmosphere).

The earliest references of which I'm aware are some lines in Aeschylus (fragments of the lost play Proteus) and Sophocles (fragments of the lost play Triptolemos), both of which refer to garos as stinking. Not a great advertisement, but the sauce was obviously popular enough that writers were referring to it and expecting everyone to understand. Since they were writing at the same time Nicolaos and Diotima are solving murders, I know I'm on solid ground using the sauce.

The stink is understandable. Although later Roman garum was made from carefully chosen gourmet fish, the original Greek version was made from leftover entrails.

Gary's theory, for what it's worth, is this: over-population was chronic in classical Greece, and children, especially small girls who were last in the feeding line, regularly went to bed hungry. Nothing that was even remotely edible was ever wasted. So when fishwives gutted the morning catch, they would have discarded the entrails into the large vats where some extra seawater would have been added, and the whole goopy mess allowed to ferment in the sun over weeks or months into garos. If this theory is correct then garos-the-fish is going to be whatever the main catch was.

When the Romans picked up the sauce from the Greeks, the ingredients and the name changed slightly. Garum isn't Latin. It's latinized Greek. Garum was made from whole fish, not only the offal. The Romans got very precious about the whole thing and would debate which species made the best sauce. Martial even talks about making it from, "mackerel still breathing its last." Later on, humble garum split into a range of gourmet sauces, each with their own names. Liquamen appears to be the original garum, and there was also allec, muria, and a pile of others. I haven't chased down any of these because by then, my characters are all shades in Hades.

Under Roman law it was illegal to make garum at home, the stench was that bad, so they had garum factories by the coast. The Greeks had no such rule, but practicality indicates garos would not have been made in Athens anyway, but Piraeus, the port town down the road, where the fisherman brought in their catch and the fishwives processed the fish. The garos would have been transported up to Athens in amphorae and sold in the Agora.

Jonathon raised the fascinating point that Worcestershire sauce is said to be a descendant of garum. Wikipedia disagrees, saying Worcestershire is derived from India. I'd normally be more inclined to believe Jonathon, given my record of finding errors in Wikipedia, but a large number of sites report the origin of Worcestershire as an attempt to reproduce an Indian sauce that went horribly wrong, and when two years later the failed experiment was sampled before discarding, there was Worcestershire sauce.

There is no chance that Worcestershire sauce tastes like garos, because the Greeks are known to have disliked anchovies. Also Worcestershire includes (apparently) molasses, chilies and sugar, none of which the Greeks had.

Anachronistic Phrases

Anachronisms are things placed out of kilter with respect to time. It’s unlikely many Roman chariot racers wore a wristwatch, to pick a famous example. It is (relatively) easy to avoid anachronistic objects like wristwatches.

A more insidious problem is anachronistic phrases: set piece sayings heard every day in modern life and embedded in our DNA, but which you could not possibly hear from a story character.

The knowledge that I will be flayed alive by my readers if they find one causes me to be cautious about the stock phrases that come so easily to the fingertips. Since I am writing in Classical Greece, you shouldn’t expect to hear too much Shakespeare from my characters. No problem, you think? All I have to do is avoid phrases like, "To be, or not to be," and, "Friends, Romans, countrymen?" Think again. The number of routine, daily phrases originating with Shakespeare is mindboggling.

There can be no method in my madness. I can't play fast and loose with my characters, stand on ceremony or make a virtue of necessity. My hero may be a tower of strength, but I daren't say so, or I'll be in a pickle. My victims may be dead as a doornail as the result of foul play, but it's a forgone conclusion I'll be a laughing stock if any of these phrases slip past me into a book.

I am not allowed to use a single one of them, neither those, nor many more. It's enough to make a writer wish the ms would vanish into thin air so he could wash his hands of the whole thing and say good riddance to the problem.

Alright, wash his hands is biblical, but don't get me started on that one, because those common phrases are forbidden too.

Ironically, I can't even say it's all Greek to me.

The subtlety of this goes beyond your wildest nightmares. Here’s my favorite example. I love this example, it really takes the cake.

There it is: that takes the cake!

No, it’s not Shakespeare. It’s Aristophanes. He invented the phrase for his play The Knights, which he wrote in 424B.C. to satirize the Athenian politician Cleon. My stories begin in 460B.C. Out by 44 years. As Maxwell Smart would say, missed by that much! ...damn, I can’t use that one either.

So simple even a child can read it.

Scroll down this page and on the left you will see a new thingy that rates the reader level required for your blog. My blog evaluates as...elementary school.

OMG, am I really that simple?

Of course there's no telling how accurate this toy is, so to test it, I tried some other sites to get a comparison.

microsoft.com: genius
www.brain-surgery.com: genius
www.thomasandfriends.com: elementary school

That last is Thomas The Tank Engine's official site.

It's not much of a test, but it's more or less in line with what you'd expect, so maybe I'm a simpleton after all.

Borders Australia...what were you thinking?

Borders Australia continued on its path to self-destruction today by issuing a Christmas catalogue in which selected popular books are listed at about 10% more than RRP.

The justification as reported in the papers is that Borders stores are nicer with comfy chairs, and they need to recoup the cost. Alright, I can see the cost of the comfy chairs, but what's to stop an intelligent reader, which would be most of them, reading the books in the comfy chairs and then walking away to buy the book elsewhere for less? (Ahhh, free market, you are a beautiful thing). Or else since Borders has a price matching policy, take the book to the Borders checkout, and simply point to the RRP on the back.

This does little to help their finances and does a great deal to deliver bad PR. It already has. The papers are reporting the Borders' price gouge, which will send plenty of people to other stores rather than take the risk of accidentally buying a book with a toxic price. The people who will be most annoyed are the ones who find out later they paid extra. Bet they won't be going back.

The solution to the comfy chair costs...most Borders have a built-in coffee shop. Raise the cost of the coffee and cake. People will pay ridiculous amounts of money for caffeine without blinking, and the ones in the chairs are probably the ones who want the coffee.

I'm such a failure

My daughter just asked me to spell diahroia diahhroea diarrhoia diarrhoea. I couldn't do it, and here I am writing.

My degree's in pure mathematics, and I can't add either. Come to think of it, I play guitar but can't recognize intervals. Am I seeing a trend here?

I dun it, Guv. But what was it?

If you heard I'd been arrested by the police, what crime would you imagine I'd committed?

Please answer in comments!

Goodreads: The Praise Singer by Mary Renault

I joined Goodreads a few days ago. It's a social networking site for...you guessed it...people who like reading books.

Writing reviews is not my thing, but Goodreads encourages it as you add books to your reading list, so as an experiment I did this review. The system automatically generates the HTML to put the review in your own blog, so here 'tis.

The Praise Singer The Praise Singer by Mary Renault

My review

rating: 5 of 5 stars

Mary Renault's series of Greek novels are an amazing rendition of the Greek world, and of them all I think The Praise Singer is possibly the best. Simple and direct, with vivid detail, it tells the life story of the poet Simonides.

Simonides lived at a time of great upheaval: the period when the great tyrants of Hellas were falling, and Athens began her first important steps to democracy. Simonides' long life meant he was there for the Persian Wars, and he is credited by some with the famous epitaph over the graves of the fallen at Thermopylae, though interestingly Renault has it otherwise in her version.

If I have any criticism to make of her books, it is that they concentrate heavily on the people, so that someone who isn't familiar with Greek history might not fully appreciate the important events unfolding about the characters. But you can't have everything, and she certainly delivers on what she promises. Read this book for a good look at life in ancient Greece, seen through the eyes of a great poet, as written by a great writer.

View all my reviews.

The Archimedes Palimpsest is now on Google Books!

Back in 1229 A.D., someone, probably in Jerusalem, probably a monk, wanted to write a prayer book. He had no clean sheets of parchment, so he did what people used to do in those days: he looked for some existing parchment, intending to scrape it clean and re-use it.

As this fellow searched about for pre-loved parchment, his hand fell upon the last remaining copy of Archimedes' treatise called The Method of Mechanical Theorems. It wasn't a religious text so obviously no one would want it; he erased it. He picked up the only remaining copy of On Floating Bodies written in the original Greek. He erased that too. He erased sections of the Stomachion which have not survived anywhere else. He tossed in four other books by Archimedes which at least have survived elsewhere in other versions. For good measure he threw in ten pages of oratory from Hyperides, whose words appear nowhere else, the 4th century legal eagle who was the defender of Phryne the Hetaera, the man who made legal history in a way described in another of my articles.

This monk is lucky we don't know his name, because he may hold the record for the greatest single-handed destruction of knowledge ever. The burning of the Library of Alexandria would obviously have destroyed far more, but it took lots of men to do that. It was this fellow's bad luck to pick up one unique text after another.

Our monk erased all these unique books, and wrote over them a bunch of prayers of no particular interest whatsoever. The resulting palimpset passed from place to place until, 723 years later in 1906, the underlying text, barely visible through the overlying ink and mostly illegible, was recognized for what it was. Scholars took some photos, as best they could in 1906, and then...you're not going to believe this, it reads like a thriller...the Archimedes Palimpsest went missing, probably stolen.

As far as anyone knew, that was the end of the story, the lost works of Archimedes lost once more.

Cut to 1998. Christies Auction House is selling a palimpsest that has been in a private collection since the 1930s. Upon inspection it turns out to be...the Archimedes Palimpsest.

Modern digital imaging technology was applied to the parchment before anyone else had a chance to lift it, and the Archimedes Palimpsest appears for the first time on Google Books. How cool is that?

This book is seriously out of copyright, so everyone is free to download it and at least gaze at ancient texts that went missing for centuries.

The most amazing thing for me about what's been discovered is that, in The Method of Mechanical Theorems, Archimedes describes a mathematical technique which is the next best thing to calculus! Now calculus was worked out independently by Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz in the 17th century, and its development opened up new ways to analyze the world and vastly sped up scientific discovery. It seems Archimedes got there first, but we didn't know it until now. How smart would a guy have to be to make such a discovery 1,600 years before the next person to work it out? And how much more advanced might the world be today if that monk had published Archimedes instead of wiping him out?

My Fave Books I Reckon You Should Read Too

Moonrat and Josephine have both published their lists of books you should read. Here’s mine. These lists are always highly subjective, so I’m not going to pretend it’s anything other than my own faves. I’m afraid the variation in quality and literary pretension gyrates wildly from ultra-highbrow to stuff an editor would be worried to find in her slush.
  1. The complete plays of Aristophanes. Don’t panic, it’s not all this highbrow. But actually Aristophanes is lowbrow…very lowbrow…and still hilarious to this day. If you don’t believe me, start by reading Lysistrata, in which the women of Athens go on a sex-strike until the men stop making war.

  2. Lord of Light – Roger Zelazny. The best of his work. If you like this, read the first series of Amber stories too, starting with Nine Princes In Amber.

  3. Starship Troopers – Robert Heinlein. Some might not appreciate his point of view, but the writing is smooth, effortless, brilliant.

  4. The English Assassin – Michael Moorcock. The first in the Jerry Cornelius series of stories. Deeply experimental, which normally would make me run away screaming, but these books really work. Also try his stories of Oswald Bastable.

  5. The Void Captain’s Tale – Norman Spinrad. Highly creative use of language, merging English, French and German (mostly) into a future Sprach.

  6. All the Greek stories of Mary Renault. Simply the best Greek historical novels of all time (except, of course, for my own forthcoming series…). She does have a thing about gay guys though.

  7. Master And Commander – Patrick O’Brien. And all the other Aubrey-Maturin novels too. Since there are 20 of these they should take 20 places, but I’m going to list only one and expect you to read the others anyway.

  8. Hamlet, MacBeth, Twelfth Night – William Shakespeare. The guy couldn’t even spell his own name consistently, but he did write rather good plays. Don’t read them; instead, travel to Stratford and watch them played by the Royal Shakespearean Company. That’s the right way to appreciate Shakespeare.

  9. The complete Sherlock Holmes stories – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Yes, every one of them. It’s necessary for the good of your soul.

  10. A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan, and The Farthest Shore. The first three of the Earthsea novels by Ursula K. LeGuin. Much better than Rowling’s stories, which are in the same vein. Long after she wrote these three, LeGuin returned to Earthsea to write some politically correct extensions that can be safely ignored. Stick with the first three.

  11. Green Eggs And Ham – Dr Seuss. And everything else he did too, but Green Eggs and Ham is my fave.

  12. Dune – Frank Herbert. Only read this first book in the series! After this, it’s all downhill.

  13. The Gordianus the Finder stories of Steven Saylor. Tales of an honest, sensitive, new age guy, who finds himself mired in the vicious politics of late Republican Rome.

  14. The SPQR stories of John Maddox Roberts. Tales of an aristocratic young trouble-maker, enjoying every moment of the vicious politics of late Republican Rome. It’s a wonder Decius Metellus and Gordianus never met.

  15. The Marcus Didius Falco stories of Lindsey Davis. Tales of the most hard done by gumshoe in Imperial Rome.

  16. The Flanders Panel – Arturo Perez-Reverte. Also The Dumas Club.

  17. The Flashman Papers, edited by George MacDonald Fraser. Brigadier-General Sir Harry Paget Flashman VC KCB KCIE…a hero for our times.

  18. The Histories – Herodotus. Step into an unbelievable world, all the more amazing because it’s true.

  19. History Of The Peloponnesian War – Thucydides. The best book ever written on power politics. Beats any thriller I know of.

  20. The Richard Sharpe stories of Bernard Cornwell. Watch in awe as Sharpe and Harper cut swathes through 30,000 French per battle.

  21. The Adam Dalgleish stories of PD James. I can’t for the life of me work out why all her characters don’t just kill themselves in various orgies of self-indulgent depression, but by God she writes well.

  22. The Roderick Alleyn stories of Ngaio Marsh. Forget Christie and Allingham; for my money Ngaio Marsh’s Alleyn is the best of the Golden Age detectives. Start with the second in the series, Enter A Murderer. Alleyn is very shaky in the first book, but by the second he has a solid voice and Marsh has him under control.

  23. The Epic of Gilgamesh. An epic poem from bronze age Mesopotamia, it’s one of the oldest stories known; it might be the oldest surviving narrative in the world, certainly much older than both Homer and the Bible. It tells the story of Gilgamesh, King of Ur, and his quest for immortality (plus lots of sex and violence). The Epic of Gilgamesh has the original version of the biblical Flood story, a variant of Eden, a serpent who steals the tree of life, and other features that clearly show at least some of the Bible’s early books are retellings of Mesopotamian myths. But before you get to all these pre-biblical references, in the first sections of the epic you have to read piles of erotica and adventure. Bummer.

  24. The Cthulhu Mythos stories of HP Lovecraft. I find Lovecraft’s stories hard to read these days because of their extreme style, but you can’t go to your grave without having read them, especially not if you’re likely to be buried anywhere near Arkham, in which case your corpse may be eaten, reanimated, or parts re-used by some insane scholar who’s glimpsed the darkness behind reality.

  25. The Crying Of Lot 49 - Thomas Pynchon. Gravity's Rainbow is his really famous book, but I think The Crying Of Lot 49 is more fun. I love the conspiracy to subvert the US Postal Service.

  26. Doctor Mirabilis - James Blish. How do you write a for-real genius as a believable character? Blish shows us how with his fictionalized bio of mediaeval scientist Roger Bacon.

  27. Tik Tok - John Sladek. When nice robots go bad.


Uh oh...I'm about to express an opinion.

NaNoWriMo is National Novel Writing Month. The idea is to write a 50,000 word novel starting 1st November and finishing by 30th November.

50,000 words divided by 30 days = 1,666 words a day, and that's just for the first draft! I don't know how it works in your world, but in mine, the ms doesn't even begin to look like a readable book until revision number 7 or so. Is anyone up for 10,000 words a day? No, I thought not.

The best you could hope for from NaNoWriMo is a rough first draft. Even the NaNoWriMo web site agrees quality prose is not the objective. The objective is sheer volume.

I just don't get this. Doesn't the world already have enough unfinished first drafts?

A number of people whose opinion I respect a great deal, a number of serious publishing professionals even, who know more about writing than I ever will, think NaNoWriMo is a great idea. Obviously they're right and and I'm wrong, but I still don't get it.

The logic goes that people who otherwise don't have the time or the self-motivation to write a book will do it in November, because NaNoWriMo delivers seering embarrassment to anyone who misses their publicly avowed target.

Alright, I get that.

But what happens on 1st December? Does the writing stop dead because the whipping stopped? Does the urgent need to buy Christmas presents make the writer put the ms away for just a few days?

You bet it does.

Worst of all, my guess is an awful lot of those unfinished drafts are not going to be recoverable with revision even if someone takes the time, because the plotting has been rushed and bad habits have probably been reinforced.

I'm going to delve into self-help guidance...something for which I am entirely unsuited. Here is Gary's Guide To Finishing The Damned Book, and you don't need NaNoWriMo to do it; this system works every month of the year.

Step 1: Write a thousand words a day. Every day. Without fail. No excuses.

You are not permitted to go to bed until you do. This probably means you're going to be up very late, but that's your problem for not being efficient. You can write any rubbish you like to make your wordcount, but eventually you're going to get sick of writing The Quick Brown Fox Jumped Over The Lazy Dog and write something useful instead.

I can't emphasize enough how important it is to hit your daily target.

Step 2: Repeat Step 1 until you've finished the draft.

If you want to stop and change bits on the way that's fine. See step 3 for the rules for revision.

Step 3: Same target applies for revision. A thousand words a day.

You think this is too easy a target? You poor fool! A thousand words of revision takes longer than writing them fresh. At least, it does if you're me. Note that revising a thousand words is not the same as reading them.

The good news is, as revisions iterate, they go faster because scenes stabilize and are locked in.

Step 4: Repeat Step 3 until you are certifiably insane and/or sell the book.

That's it! This is the system I use, and it has caused me to finish three novels. One rotten, one with some good bits, and one that's actually quite good. I should be writing number four instead of doing this blog, but that merely means I'll be up until later to make my target.

Getting behind the scenes at the British Museum

Hidden deep inside the British Museum are staff with PhDs in history, archeology etc. They're the ones who put the things in the public display cases.

The professionals who know what they're talking about lurk within rooms behind locked doors. If you'd like to meet them, do what I did: walk up to the information desk at the front of the atrium and say something like, "Could you please direct me to everything you have from the Aegean island of Samos, dated 520 B.C. plus or minus ten years?" (Choose your own exotic question here, but mine worked.)

The nice lady at the information desk smiled and did her best with what for her probably amounted to Mission Impossible, though as she put it, my request was more interesting than telling people where to find the toilets. After ten minutes she gave up and said, "You need to talk to the Study Group." The capital S and G were clear in her tone. She picked up the phone and arranged an appointment for me to see the duty officer in Greek and Roman Antiquities.

She directed me to an obscure, anonymous, locked door at the end of a long wing. There isn't a secret knock, but it feels like there should be. Instead, I rang the bell, and after explaining the purpose of my existence was let inside.

I had some fun trying to explain why I was there. "I'm writing the second book in a series of historical mysteries, and my hero, who happens to be the elder brother of Socrates...yes, I know he had no known siblings, that's why it's called fiction...is on a mission for Pericles when he discovers..." Eyes glaze over as I disclose the devious plot. I won't tell you what Nicolaos discovers, 'cause that would be spoiler city, but the nice man at the BM knows. "...so for historical accuracy I need to look at anything you might have from Samos circa 520 B.C. or thereabouts."

Here's how the system works. The BM holds an awful lot of stuff in storage. If you have a decent reason for wanting to see something, and if a responsible adult from a recognized university or museum is willing to write a note certifying you're not prone to dropping delicate 2,500 year old ceramics, then with a week's written notice they will (for free!) have someone pull what you want out of storage and send it to one of their three study rooms deep within the inner bowels. There you get to study whatever it is you requested, in person, without any glass cabinet in the way. Very cool, and a phenomenal service.

Gary finds The Horse!

I went to the British Museum today, with the express purpose of absorbing every item in there dated between 480B.C. and 440B.C. in the Greek section.

Why the tight restriction? Because my first novel of detective Nicolaos in Classical Athens opens in 460B.C.

You'd think that'd narrow the scope to a managable level, wouldn't you? But I left with only 223 photos because I couldn't fit more in the camera at high resolution, and there are still things I haven't seen properly.

After I gave up trying to squeeze more bits into the camera, I wandered through the nearby section on the Hellenistic Period, which can't help my stories but is fun. That's a time from about 320B.C. onwards, long after the fall of the Athenian Empire, when greek culture had spread everywhere. The Hellenistic Period is all very interesting, but by then my characters have been shades in Hades for at least eighty years.

So there I am wandering about, when I come to one of the seven wonders of the ancient world (as you do). I pass by most of the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus until I stop dead at the sight of The Horse.

Only the forepart has survived, but this thing is huge. I'm 6' 3", and I wouldn't make it halfway up the neck. The statue is about four times larger than a real horse.

What got me so excited is that a super-sized marble statue of a horse plays a prominent part in one of my scenes, and this beastie is precisely like the one I imagined for the book. Even the size is right for what I wanted.

Now the question I'm asking myself is, did I invent my horse statue from whole cloth, or did I subconsciously insert this one from my memory? I've been through the BM plenty of times before. I know I've seen this statue before, but I don't remember it!

Gary meets Andrew Grant!

You may not have heard of UK thriller author Andrew Grant, but that's only because his first book has yet to appear in stores. Next year, when it does, you'll know it.

Here's how good he is: when he sent round queries looking for a literary agent, an amazing 80% offered to represent him. Most unrepresented writers would kill for a 1% yes rate. When his agent went out with his ms, six publishers wanted his book.

To top it off, he's an extremely nice guy. It's just not fair.

That's Andrew on the left...the good looking one.

Andrew and I met for dinner while I was in London. The topics of conversation were writing, writing, and writing: the joys of writing a second novel, self-promotion, the care and feeding of one's agent, and our mutual writing histories, which have some remarkable similarities despite our different backgrounds. We both reached a point (I will forbear from the term midlife crisis) where we both decided that this was it, rearranged our lives, and wrote a book. Where we differ is that he has a publication date, and a deadline for his second ms.

Stay tuned for EVEN, the first of the David Trevellyan books by Andrew Gant.

Gary meets Anneke and Bill (at last!)

Many months ago, a naive and somewhat rejected amateur writer called Gary was wandering around inside a place called Second Life, an online virtual world, when he ran into a goth girl called Anneke. Anneke was a writer type too, and she told him about an in-world magazine looking for stories.

So Gary wrote a short story that he submitted to the magazine, and they accepted it. That was his first ever sale! (He'd won prizes before this, but never a sale.)

Before he submitted, he sent the story to Anneke to see what she thought. Anneke likes critiquing stories, and she has a natural talent for it. What is most amazing is, not only does she have the ability to improve someone else's story, but she can do it in English. Anneke is Dutch. Astonishing!

And so a habit developed. Every single thing I've written since then, Anneke has checked before I submitted. Every time, she's said something that improved the story. For my short stories that probably didn't take too much of her time, not enough that I feel guilty about it in any case. But then she read my novel end to end and sent me a perceptive and very useful critique. Wow! I fixed the ms as best I could.

Her own writing, in English, her second language, is very good indeed, far better than most native speakers could achieve. I hope one day she submits some of her own fiction somewhere.

In the course of time I met another writer friend of Anneke's. Bill Kirton is a Real Writer. Bill has written plays that people have actually put on. He's had piles of short stories published, and two novels, with more to come. He used to teach creative writing (and Fench) at university. It's scary how much he knows about how to deliver a gritty, tight, solid story.

Bill, a professional, offered to read my novel. He sent me a brilliant critique that pointed out important weaknesses, most of which I'd semi-realized were there but hadn't known enough to know they were weaknesses. I fixed the ms again, as best I could.

I owe Anneke and Bill a lot.

There was never the slightest chance we'd ever meet of course, because Anneke is in Amsterdam and Bill is in sunny Aberdeen. But then I announced I was visiting Europe, so we agreed to converge on London. Which we did, and I, for one, had a wonderful time meeting friends I never expected to be with in person.

I'll have to update this later with a photo; they're all on Anneke's camera.

Bill, the ultimate gentleman, insisted on paying for lunch. He also gave Anneke and I signed copies of his latest book, Rough Justice. I read it that night. Of course I already had a copy of his first book, Material Evidence, on the shelves at home.

What I like about Detective Chief Inspector Carston of the Cairnburgh force is he's a regular guy who just happens to catch killers for a living. Not a trace of detective eccentricity to be seen, but plenty of realistic characters and a murder you can believe in.

Travel Rules of the Gendarmes

After carefully observing the gendarmerie of Paris for some days, I believe I have deduced the rules of how they are expected to move about:

  1. Turn on the siren. This most important of rules applies to all but the most trivial situations. Being late for lunch is not trivial, especially in France.

  2. Have many people in the car. Two is far too few. Five gendarmes looks more impressive to the people watching you whiz by with siren blaring.
  3. Everyone in the car should look earnestly in the direction of travel. This rule must be especially important because I have never seen it broken. I expect this is to give the impression that where they are going is more important than where they are.

  4. Never use one car when three, four or five will do. Convoys of cars, sirens blaring, many men in each car, all looking forwards with intense, earnest expressions. Egads! Whatever it is, it must be important. But why does it happen several times every hour?

  5. As soon as you arrive at your destination, stand around and do nothing much. I deduce this rule from the fact that gendarmes are only seen in one of two states: either rushing about in cars, sirens blaring, or else standing about doing nothing much, often in impressively large groups (I guess that's why they need all the cars) and wearing piles of dark blue armor and armed to the hilt. As far as I'm aware, no one has ever observed them doing anything other than these two things.

Roman Wine Review: Carenum

Welcome to the third and last of the reviews of wine made in the ancient Roman style by Tourelles Winery in Provence.

Carenum is really, really nice. I would happily buy more of this.

Carenum is a sweet, white wine. The label says it is made from late harvested grapes, which is highly believable. It has the intense flavor associated with wines in which the water content was reduced prior to making the vintage.

My wife Helen thinks Carenum tastes a bit like sherry. This is the only one of the three Roman wines which she more or less vacuumed down.

Carenum has had quince added to it, as well as grape juice that's been concentrated by boiling. That gives you a much stronger grape taste than you get from the previous two wines, for which their added spices were a dominant factor.

You could easily serve Carenum in an anonymous bottle at a dinner party and get away with it. Your friends would assume it was a sweet desert wine, which fundamentally, is exactly what it is.

Highly recommended.

If Roman wine interests you, then check out the blog for Mulsum and Turriculae.

Who was the most powerful man in Athens?

It depends on when you're asking about, but the common answer is Pericles.

During the Golden Age of Athens, the guy more or less making the decisions was Pericles. But this does not mean he was in charge. Athens was a direct democracy, so the citizens voted on every single issue. Pericles' power was his ability to persuade the people to see things his way. When he expressed an opinion in the Ecclesia - the Peoples' Assembly -it practically always swung the vote.

Though we call him a statesman, Pericles was, technically, a military man. Year after year he was voted by the people to be one of the ten strategoi, which means Generals. You'll never guess where we get our word strategy.

(I've noticed some common questions leading people to this blog, so I'm making it simple for searchers by answering the questions directly.)

A Bill Gates Story

Travis commented on the earlier post that Bill Gates would not have had to wait in line at the Eiffel Tower, which is true enough. But there was a time when not even Bill could escape the same treatment meted out to mere mortals.

I used to work at Microsoft, for 14 years in fact. I was not present at the evening I'm about to describe, but I know some of the people who were there and I'm sure this is true...

Once when Bill Gates was visiting Sydney years ago, a group went out to dinner, including Bill. This was in the days before the famous pie-in-the-face episode in Belgium, after which the security guards appeared and he became much more cautious, and reasonably so. Before the pie, it was perfectly normal for Bill to wander about with the staff.

At some point in the evening the group decided to go to Bondi RSL. (RSL stands for Returned Services League, which is a veteran's association that operates many clubs which are effectively community centers.) I have no idea what they were thinking - an RSL club is not exactly the place you expect to find a group of ultra-geeks - but that's what they did.

So this bunch, including BillG, walk into the local RSL.

Now it's a rule of all RSL clubs that you have to be properly dressed to get into the bar, out of respect for those who've died defending the country. "Properly" means trousers (not shorts), a shirt or polo shirt, and shoes (not loose sandals). So far so good, but the final, immutable, non-negotiable rule is that men must wear a tie.

Bill is not wearing a tie, as usual.

The man at the desk refuses to let them in.

An argument ensues, probably with the Australians in the group embarrassed that their guest Bill Gates is about to become the first billionaire ever to be thrown out of an RSL. At some point someone points to Bill and says, "You do know who he is, don't you?" The nice man says (correctly) it doesn't matter who he is, he's not getting in without a tie.

This problem happens frequently at such clubs, and they have a simple solution. The man pulls out a used tie - they keep a few behind the desk - and hands it to Bill. Bill puts it on. If it was like the pre-loved ties I've seen it would have been a grotty, unwashed piece of material, but that doesn't matter because he's wearing a tie. So in they walk.

Which just goes to prove sometimes even the wealthiest man on the planet gets treated like the rest of we mortals.

Roman Wine Review: Mulsum

The second wine in our series of genuine (sort of) Roman wine from Tourelles is Mulsum, a red.

Mulsum tastes like a really nice cough mixture. You know the type I mean: you take a swig to stop your cough so you can sleep at night, and then you take a bit more because it tastes okay.

I'm not using good winey language, I know; I should have said something like, "This wine has a strong, perhaps almost pungent, aftertaste, reminiscent of nuts and pepper," but what I'd really be saying is this tastes like a nice cough mixture. (I can feel any offers of a regular column in Wine Monthly slipping away with every word I write.)

Mulsum is a "normal" red wine to which has been added honey, cinnamon, pepper, thyme, and other spices in lesser amount. I'm guessing the honey and cinammon gives Mulsum the initial smooth taste, almost like a modern wine, and the pepper and thyme deliver the cough mixture finish.

You could probably serve Mulsum at a dinner party in an anonymous bottle and many people wouldn't notice, or at least, not comment. The finish might raise a few eyebrows, and I can imagine someone saying, "This is interesting, what is it?" At that point you could reveal your wine's fascinating provenance from Provence (how's that for alliteration?).

Mulsum was used in Roman times as their equivalent of an aperitif. It would do fine for the same purpose today. The winery suggests drinking it with duck with figs, small quails (of course you cook quail at home, don't you?), spicy dishes or Roquefort.

If Roman wine interests you, then check out the blog for Carenum and Turriculae.

The Bill Gates Connection

Yesterday we visited the Eiffel tower. This involves standing in queues for well over an hour. While standing there a man behind us said to my wife, "Your husband looks just like Bill Gates." He was from Peru and wasn't a techie.

I find this amusing because in the bio on my web site I mention I look somewhat like Bill Gates. I've had numerous experiences where people have confused me for Bill. Yet I can't help feeling no one believes me when I say this. So I'm logging this incident as proof that the most unlikely people, when seeing me in real life, might wonder if I'm Bill Gates. Unfortunately Bill's bank manager has never suffered this confusion.

Roman Wine Review: Turriculae

There is a winery called Tourelles, in Provence in Southern France, which makes wine in the old Roman fashion, with a wine press that duplicates Roman design, using the methods described by Roman writers, and adding the same ingredients as the Romans put into their own wines. It's probably as close as anyone can come today to making a wine that a woman or man of 2,000 years ago might sip and find familiar. This is all just very cool.

I visited them recently and tasted and bought bottles of their three Roman vintages. I've never been a wine critic, and I'm probably beginning with a challenge, but here for better or worse are Gary's Roman wine reviews, which I'll post in tasting order.

First off is Turriculae, a white wine with some interesting ingredients.

Turriculae is like no modern wine. The first taste is a surprise, courtesy of the fenugreek. Yep, that's right. Fenugreek. You probably know it as something you put in your curry, but the Romans added fenugreek to their wine. In fact the word fenugreek comes from Latin: foenum graecum means "Greek hay".

As the flavor of the fenugreek dissipates there is a salty aftertaste. That's because Turriculae is 2% saltwater. Saltwater, like, from the sea.

Ahh, they don't make wines like they used to.

This may sound yukky, but after a while, it grows on you. The second night my wife and I drank Turriculae, it tasted nicer than the first, and keep in mind that for hundreds of years wealthy, sane people within the Roman Empire bought this stuff and enjoyed it, so there must be something to it. It's all a matter of fashion and what you're used to.

Romans added seawater as a preservative (the salt), as well as for taste. It's known that the Greeks too sometimes cut their wine with seawater, and they too added spices, so my guess is Turriculae is as close as we can come to duplicating the taste of a Greek wine. (As far as I know, no one is making Classical Greek wines the way this winery is making Roman ones.)

There is no way you could pass off Turriculae as a modern wine. If you served it to friends at a dinner party in an anonymous bottle, the first person to take a swig would clutch their throat and choke; not because there's anything wrong with the wine, but because the taste is so very unexpected.

You might try to pass it off as a liqueur from an exotic locale: "I picked up a few bottles of this while passing through Gallia Narbonensis. Do have a splash, it's quite different."

If you get away with it you then can have fun when you reveal to your friends what they've drunk and what's in it, plus you get to show how erudite you are with the joke about Gallia Narbonensis. (It's the name of the Roman province that included Provence).

As you can probably tell, although it was way cool to be drinking Turriculae, I would not walk through ten foot snow drifts to drink any more. But that's only me, and since I dislike all liqueurs and spirits, and Turriculae reminds me a little bit of a liqueur in taste, someone who likes that kind of thing should try it. In fact, everyone should try it at least once if only so you can say you have.

If Roman wine interests you, then check out the blog for Mulsum and Carenum.

Polisher Of Stone

Edward, one of my readers, has asked a question. Wow, my blog is going up in the world! I'm terribly grateful. The paraphrased question is:

Gary Corby, first off love your website ;). (You can see at once Edward is a man of fine taste - Gary). A polisher of stone, or a stone mason/sculptor, I was wondering do you have more information. "Polisher of stone" was it a name given to many or only the select few?
Edward's referring here to the description on my web site of the father of Socrates being a "polisher of stone," and by extension Socrates too.

"Polisher of stone" in Greek meant not so much a stone mason as a sculptor in stone, and marble in particular.

Though it is common belief, it is only by tradition that Sophroniscus, the father of Socrates, was a "polisher of stone." (The Classical Greek term is lithoxoos).

The first documented mention I know of the idea is more than a hundred years after Socrates' death. There is no real evidence contemporary with Socrates himself; neither Plato nor Xenophon mention the profession of either Sophroniscus or Socrates.

I have Sophroniscus as a sculptor in my novels because it suits me, and if I didn't I would have to explain it away for all those people who take the story as true.

Plato does in one of his books have Socrates claiming Daedalus as his ancestor. The way Plato puts it reads to me like Socrates was passing on a family tradition which he accepted as true.

Daedalus is famous as the mythical genius artisan who worked for King Minos of Crete, who helped Theseus when he came to slay the Minotaur, and who invented wings which his son Icarus used to fly too close to the sun, thus creating the world's first airflight disaster. Daedalus is said to have returned to Athens with Theseus, and Socrates claiming him as an ancestor is fair evidence that Socrates comes from the artisan class.

This in itself is odd because it seems certain Sophroniscus had friends in common with Pericles and his father Xanthippus, which you would not expect if the family were artisans. Artisans were middle class; anyone hanging out with Pericles' family would be seriously upper class.

"Polisher of stone" was not necessarily a compliment! At the time of my detective hero Nicolaos, and his irritating younger brother Socrates, the latest fashion in sculpting was not marble, but bronze. People these days think of marble when they imagine Greek sculpture, but that's because some marble work has survived and almost all the bronzework was destroyed long ago. Anyone still working in marble around 460 B.C. was either a traditionalist (which is how I've portrayed Sophroniscus) or else didn't have the greater technical skill required to work in trendy bronze.

So in summary, "polisher of stone" was the Greek term for a marble sculptor, and tradition says Socrates' family was in that business, though no one really knows.

Siege Engines

Okay, I'm a guy. Even though nothing could convince me to fight a war anywhere, any time, I'm still fascinated by military stuff. I might even claim some small competence in military history.

So when in our travels we came across some operational siege engines, it was real cool.

This is a trebuchet in resting position:


The vertical beam is the catapault arm. There's a weight, barely visible, at the bottom. The two wheels to the right are used to raise the weight and lower the arm, preparing the trebuchet to shoot.


This is me, in dark top and blue jeans, plus five other guys turning the wheels. You see the weight is going up and the arm down. It's easy to turn at first, but becomes harder as the weight goes up.

The white ball at my feet is a plastic shot.

Now here is the trebuchet being fired. Keep in mind the size and weight when you see it flinging about. A shot could easily fly over a kilometer. As you might imagine, accuracy is not a strong point, but if your target is an entire city then it's kind of hard to miss.

Here's a ballista, a combination massive crossbow and catapault:



The crossbow part is the high, horizontal beam and ropes coming from it. The "bowstring" loops around the catapault arm, which you see resting at a vertical angle. You wind back the arm, then let go. The catapault is pulled forward, hits the "bow", and whatever's in the cup of the catapault goes flying.

Here's the ballista as seen from the receiving end. Imagine waking up to find a hundred of these parked outside your castle, all pointing in the general direction of you. That probably means it's going to be a bad day at the office. If men are assembling trebuchets being the ballistas, it's probably going to be a very bad day.

Ballista Long Distance

This is a battering ram. The roofing is to protect your people from arrows, boiling oil, etc, thus improving your army's occupational health and safety rating. The heavy beam under the roof is hung to swing backwards and forwards, making it easy to knock on the door.

Battering Ram

These siege engines look exactly like the ones in Age Of Empires. Who says video games disconnect people from reality?

Google Reader Overload Redux

431 unread articles in Google Reader and rising. I don't have time to read them while I'm traveling, but watching the number rise is fascinating.

What does it say about me that, if Iwere at home, that value would be zero?

Some Greek Pottery

For anyone who's read the book (admittedly a small integer at the moment) and wants to know what some of the crockery I mention actually looks like...

These are some of my photos from the Musee Lapidaire in Avignon. The picture quality is not good due to glass cabinets and reflections therein; hopefully I'll have better by the time I'm finished in the Louvre and British Museum.

A reconstructed funerary jar.

Take one corpse, roast over a burning pyre until thoroughly overdone. Douse flames with ritual wine. (This must all be done after dusk so as not to offend the Sun God Apollo with the sight of a dead man).

Scoop up ashes with a hand trowel and pour into this jar.

Set up jar in nearby cemetary. The cemetary just outside the Dipylon Gates to the NW of Athens would be traditional.

Return to visit regularly leaving offerings for the dead. This was a prime duty of all children.

The pigtails in the background btw belong to my younger daughter Megan, who was so very patient while Daddy obsessed about old pots.

A very cool cup.

I expect this would have been a symposium (dinner party) cup.

It's about a hundred years or more after the period I'm writing, maybe about the time of Alexander, hence the more complex decoration with the white coloring. In Nicolaos' time, the latest trendy stuff was all red-figure.

Just to prove I can't hold a camera straight, here is a krater. They were used to mix wine at symposia, which were fun dinner parties, not boring academic waffling.

Only a barbarian would drink wine neat. Greeks always mixed wine with water, which would be the duty of slave boys.

The symposiarch, the guy in charge of festivities, would decide the ratio. 3 water for 1 wine meant a pleasant evening of refined philosophical discussion. 2 for 1 was party time. 1 for 1 meant the flute girls could expect extra pay for extra duties.

This is a hydria, as the name implies used for storing water, or sometimes oil.

You'd find lots of these in every kitchen and bar.

Would a crime writer make a good criminal?

If a crime writer turned to, well, crime, would he or she be any good at it?

There are plenty of fictional accounts in which a famous author executes a plot so devious that only a writer or someone with a deranged mind...errr, that is, only a writer could have thought of it. More often than not, some surprise unravels the plan, but the assumption is always that the writer could have got away with it if not for the unfortunate accident.

I can't off-hand think of any real life examples. The best I can manage is that Conan Doyle did at one point try his hand as an amateur detective in an attempt to clear a man he felt wrongly accused, and there are the much made of missing days of Christie.

But neither of these were committing a crime (Christie was probably having a good weep somewhere).

I confess I've considered how I'd go about a number of different crimes, the obvious and most interesting one of course being murder. I'll save my murder plan for another day and another blog (or unless I need to use it, whichever comes first...) and stick to the point that all my mentally filed criminal plans are rather tricky, just as you'd expect. Which is rather unfortunate, really, because the most successful murders are simple, direct, and scary. Drive by shootings, common beatings, a shooting in the woods and bury the body; it's all so dreary, uninteresting, and effective. The simple methods work because there are fewer "moving parts" to go wrong. Tricky = Likely To Fail.

The sad probable truth is, a successful crime depends at least as much on steady nerve and the execution as it does on the quality of the plan, and the average writer would probably do a poor job on execution. Staring at a screen all day, typing, and daydreaming, are not good practise for the daring and devious acts a writer's plan would demand.

Of course, there is the final, ominous possibility. Perhaps crime writers are so good at crime that not a single one of the numerous writer-criminals has ever been caught. Agents and editors should keep that in mind the next time they annoy one.

Google Reader Overload

I use Google Reader to keep track of the blogs I like to read. Actually there are even more I like but there has to be a limit.

So, I don't open Google Reader for almost two weeks, and what happens? 277 unread blog posts.

Wow, do I read that much? Do I actually remember it all, or even take note? I usually skip posts that don't excite me (of course I read all of yours), but still, that's a pile of information.

Then there are the links that I follow, find something interesting, with more links, and wind up in a maze of twisty little passages, all alike, trying to remember how I came to be reading about saussage making, or the mating habits of the lesser spotted African gerbil, when I started with a blog about someone's book.

The Rhythm Method

Rhythm matters a great deal in writing. You just have to have it. If you can't find the rhythm in your work, then you're probably in trouble.

Now different languages favor different rhythms in speech and writing -- I speak barely enough German to know that -- and there're pronounced differences in the natural styles of writers.

Does this mean some writers have styles that naturally fit certain languages? Maybe there are people out there who can't write in English to save their lives, but who would have been fine in Swahili, if only they knew the language?

Or are there writers who can be improved by translation? I'm thinking of Perez-Reverte on that one. I don't know a word of Spanish, so I can't speak for the original, but the translations of books like The Flanders Panel are brilliant. (If you haven't heard of him, rush out now and get The Flanders Panel, The Dumas Club, and The Dancing Master).

Where's Waldo?

I'm travelling about Europe with my family, which is why my blogging frequency is now approaching zero.

Looking about local bookstores in Germany and Switzerland, it struck me what a disaster it must be for a good writer to be born into a place where few people use the language. A fairly large number of books in the local Buchhandlerung are translations from English language works. Considering how little money there seems to be for English language writers, even given the huge English language reading public, the income of a German or, OMG, Czech or Turkish author must be miniscule. How do these people cope?

Disposing of the body: a guide for world travellers.

You've killed your victim. You've cleaned up the gore and tidied away the evidence, but there's one last little problem: where to dispose of the body? You're in a strange city and don't know the locale.

Here, as a community service for serial killers on vacation, is a list of suggestions for dumping the body in various world cities.

Paris, France

Paris has a terrific disposal spot! First, place the body in a vat and render it down to bones. Now take the bones and visit the Catacombs of Paris. This is an underground ossuary which has been in use for over two centuries. The place is chock-a-block full of human bones; at least tens of thousands of them, many arranged in interesting patterns, but most simply stacked.

Be careful to place your new additions underneath some of the older existing ones.

New York, United States

Janet Reid, with whom I will be careful to avoid riding the subway, suggests: "You could stuff a body in an unused subway tunnel, cover it in lime, and Bob's your uncle. Your dead uncle, but still."

Sydney, Australia

Feed 'em to the sharks. This requires a boat - easy to come by in Sydney. It should be straightforward to disguise the body inside a sail bag. Sail out of the harbour onto open ocean, wait for sharks. Feed.

This innovative solution has only ever gone wrong once, but when it did, it was in spectacular fashion. In 1935, a recently captured shark at a public aquarium, while a crowd watched, disgorged a human arm, which proved to belong to an underworld identity who, funnily enough, had been missing for some days. Forensics was able to prove it was murder since the arm had been cut off, not torn. No one was ever tried for the crime, though one suspect was conveniently murdered on the day of the inquest.

London, Britain

Preparation is tricky here, but potentially very rewarding. Embalm body, treat with extra preservatives and stiffeners. Coat with wax. Carry to Madame Tussaud's.

Baltimore, United States

Janet likes an idea used in The Wire: If you're in Baltimore, you can just nail gun them into one of the vacant row houses and cover them with lime.

Amsterdam, Netherlands

Annablume recommends Amsterdam for convenience factor and the short commute with your victim:

In Amsterdam it's common use to dump bodies into one of the canals. You won't have to walk far, you will find a canal within short distance.

I guess this will work for Venice too.

Aberdeen, Scotland

Bill suggests: Aberdeen's the oil capital of Europe. This means that lots of big pipes from the offshore installations get contaminated by Low Specific Activity scale - which is naturally occurring radioactivity that's sucked up from the reservoirs. They have to be brought ashore and treated in special facilities.

Drag your body (at dead of night, naturally), and stuff it into one of these pipes. No-one will come near it for ages.

The drawback is that your own skin will probably fall off on your way home.

Alternatively, using the same basic principle, you could drive the corpse up north, paint some luminous green spots on it and leave it exposed on the beach near the Dounreay reactor. Again, people will give it a wide berth.


The default solution for when your city doesn't have an obvious disposal spot: read the town's crime report, get a sense of where all the crime takes place, book a hotel far away from there, find a dumpster. Thank you, the very organized Miss Expatria.

Somewhat more difficult for the average mortal, Josephine Damian suggests CSI training should help with this problem. Enrol now.

Direct Democracy

Athens had a direct democracy. There was no parliament, or rather, every citizen belonged to the parliament. All citizens voted personally on every issue.

This works just fine as long as the whole citizenry can fit into one place, but breaks down as soon as your national population is larger than a town.

Modern democracies get around this problem by being representative democracies. The people choose representatives to decide for them, and government becomes the will of the people only by proxy; it is more accurately the will of the representatives. The only modern democracy I'm aware of that attempts to do direct democracy is Switzerland, which has a relatively small population in a tight space.

Thus, weirdly enough, the most democratic nation the world has ever seen was also the world's first; no nation has ever surpassed Classical Athens for maximising the power of each individual. (As long as the individual was an adult male, but that's another issue...)

Some people have thought hard about introducing modern direct democracy. It could be done, using the internet. The United States, or the European Union, or anywhere, could run the same system as Athens, so that every citizen could be given a vote on every issue, everything managed by an elected executive.

I'm not so sure this is such a great idea. It might be equivalent to putting control into the hands of the small number of people who control the media. Too many people will do what they're told by advertising. Certainly most people have their opinions molded by what they're told. Governments which control public access to information know this very well.

If America was Classical Athens

Since Presidential elections are somewhat on the mind at the moment, let me take a moment to describe how the voting system would work if the President was elected the same way as Classical Athens elected its executive government. I want to show just how radically different modern democracies are from the world's first.

Okay, so every citizen of the USA now belongs to one of 10 tribes. The split is arbitrary and has nothing to do with family relationships. It's more like having 10 non-geographic states where the populations of each state are mixed together.

Each tribe takes it in turn to supply the President for a year. So if your name is Obama or McCain but it's not your tribe's turn, then tough luck. The take-turns thing is to make sure no one party or clique can have power for long enough to take control of the country permanently.

Now here's the fun bit...when it's your tribe's turn to supply the President, ten candidates are selected by random lot from amongst the whole tribe. If your name is Obama or McCain it still won't do you any good, because the odds of you making it into the list are minimal.

All the citizens now get to vote from amongst this random selection. The winner is the President.

Consider what sort of President you're going to get if you had to choose amongst 10 random citizens. Obviously everyone is going to try and pick the most competent of the bunch, and party politics will have nothing to do with it. Some years there'll be a good guy or two in there, some years it'll be 10 losers to choose from.

To make it more fun, if we continue with the Athenian system, then all Supreme Court judges and the Federal Court are elected every year, the same way as the President.

Now let's imagine a United States in which the President and the Supreme Court is populated by chance and replaced every year. This is going to be a seriously weak executive and judiciary.

Is there anyone elected based on their merit?

Well yes, there is. The Joint Chiefs of Staff is elected every year, but unlike the executive branch, the armed forces Generals, ten of them, are selected on merit from amongst all the citizens, and unlike the President, competent Generals are allowed to serve any number of times.

So who do you think would be the most powerful group under the Athenian system? That's right, the military.

And that is why Pericles one of the greatest statesmen of all time, were he alive today, would be ruling America as a member of the Joint Chiefs. Which is exactly how he went about ruling Athens. That funny hat you always see him wearing in statues is actually a war helmet.

Of course under this system, there is something else missing: no Reps. No Senate. No elected politicians. Every citizen votes on every bill. Any citizen can propose a bill. Every citizen is a Senator. Because unlike America, and every other modern democracy, all of which are representative, Athens was a direct democracy; and that's the reason they were able to get away with the crazed system of executive government; because the sovereign power was very directly in the hands of every citizen.

Things I Will Do When I’m The Killer

The last in the series of helpful hints for what to do, and not do, if you find yourself a character in a mystery. Here are some helpful hints for when you are The Killer.

  1. I will not taunt the police by leaving weird clues. If I feel an irresistible urge to express my individuality, I will enroll in an art class.
  2. I will eschew exotic poisons, ingenious death traps, and homicidal pets.
  3. I will keep it simple. Nothing beats a drive-by shooting in a crowded street. If nothing else, the fifty witnesses will never agree on what they saw and will leave the jury too confused to convict.
  4. I will learn enough forensics not to fall for the detective’s ludicrous trap when he/she hints at having evidence he/she could not possibly have.
  5. I will not confess at the end of the book if the detective’s evidence is so weak that any judge would throw out the case.
  6. In fact, I will not confess at the end of the book, even if the detective’s case is ironclad, or if I’ve fallen into the detective’s trap. They still have to prove it in court, and it’s amazing what some juries will do.
  7. If my motive is transparent, I will not act until my false passport is ready and my wealth has been transferred to a bank in a country without an extradition treaty. Either that, or I’ll kill someone else instead.
  8. If my plan starts to unravel, I will not respond with a frenzied killing spree to cover my tracks (unless it helps me to relax). See previous point about false passports and countries without extradition.
  9. If the detective is an aged spinster, a pretentiously mannered middle-aged man, or some other irritating amateur, I will avoid most of my problems by refusing to talk to them. Better still, I will claim harassment from this nutter and ask a court to give me a protection order.
  10. If the detective is an embittered, cynical cop whose private life is falling apart, I will arrange for a lovely young lady to make his acquaintance. He will be so overcome with joy that he’ll neglect the case.
  11. If the detective has an infallible detective dog/cat/gerbil, I will accidentally discharge my shotgun. The penalty for killing a domestic animal is insignificant.
  12. Before committing the murder, I will check the police clear-up rate for my local district. If a master detective is in the area then a change of venue is called for. On second thoughts, I will stay where I am, murder the master detective first, before I have any motive to do so, then move on to the real victim.
  13. In choosing the venue for my crime, I will avoid overnight trains, cruise liners, isolated country houses, and the space shuttle.

If you've enjoyed Things I Will Do When I'm The Killer, have a look at these two:

Things I Will Do When I'm The Master Detective, and

Things I Will Do When I'm The Vital Witness

Please use comments to make your own suggestions!

Things I Will Do When I’m A Master Detective

Characters in mysteries make so many common mistakes! In these posts I list some helpful hints for what to do, and not do, if you find yourself a character in a mystery. Here are some helpful hints for when you are the Master Detective.

  1. When my spouse/girlfriend/boyfriend/child becomes entangled in the brutal murder, which seems to happen with unnerving frequency, I will immediately send him/her away on an overseas holiday. This will avoid the inevitable crisis in which he/she is threatened by the killer.
  2. I will stop to ask myself, how come my spouse/girlfriend/boyfriend/child always seems to be in the vicinity when a brutal murder happens?
  3. I will listen carefully for the one moment when my clueless sidekick says something useful, and not ignore it.
  4. I will check the birth records of all witnesses and suspects within the first hour to discover which of them are identical twins.
  5. While delivering my 15 page exposition at the end of the book on how I solved it, I will keep a close eye on the position of the murderer, relative to the murder weapon thoughtlessly left lying on the table.
  6. When the murderer takes a hostage to avoid capture right at the end, I will let my sidekick make the first move. With any luck I’ll get a more intelligent sidekick in the next book. Same goes for if the killer makes a run for it carrying a gun.

If you've enjoyed Things I Will Do When I'm A Master Detective, have a look at these two:

Things I Will Do When I'm The Killer, and

Things I Will Do When I'm The Vital Witness

Please use comments to make your own suggestions!

Things I Will Do When I’m The Vital Witness

Characters in mysteries make so many common mistakes! In the next three blog posts I will list some helpful hints for what to do, and not do, if you find yourself a character in a mystery. To start, here are some helpful hints for when you are the Vital Witness.

  1. When I’m woken in my lonely bed in the middle of the night, and hear a strange noise in the house, I will not creep downstairs calling out, “Hello? Is anyone there?”
  2. I will not try to blackmail the killer. It always ends in tears.
  3. If I decide to blackmail the killer anyway, I will first move to a distant country under a false name. Then I’ll let the killer know I know his identity by email, using an anonymous account.
  4. I will not turn up to collect the blackmail money. Direct deposit into my Paypal account will do just fine, thank you very much.
  5. If I know the killer is my dearest friend, I will quietly clue the police, and then act surprised when he's led away in handcuffs.
  6. Before I withhold vital information from the detective, I will check to make sure my life insurance is up to date.
  7. After I have withheld vital information from the detective, I will avoid being on my own or with only one other person. If necessary, I will move into a dorm at the local backpacker hostel. Under no circumstances will I walk down a lonely street at night.
  8. If the detective offers me police protection at night, I will say yes and invite the policeman into my bed. This won’t stop the moron from inevitably nodding off just at the moment when the killer comes for me, but at least he’ll die with me for his blunder.

If you've enjoyed Things I Will Do When I'm The Vital Witness, have a look at these two:

Things I Will Do When I'm The Killer, and

Things I Will Do When I'm A Master Detective

Please use comments to make your own suggestions!

Another Phryne Story

Phryne gathered a fortune from the gifts her many besotted lovers bestowed on her. She might in fact have been the richest private woman in Greece.

When Alexander the Great pulled down the walls of Thebes in punishment for rebellion, Phryne offered to rebuild them at her own expense. She set just one condition: the Thebans had to agree to place a plaque on the walls where everyone would see it, saying:

Alexander pulled it down, but Phryne the Hetaera got it erect again.

A new style!

Anneke and I are changing the style of my web site to reflect the books I'm writing: a Greek red-figure pottery theme, sort of. This blog is the first piece to go live.

It interests me just how primitive the web remains to this day. The coding you have to do to customise a site (Blogger.com, to pick a random example currently dear to my bile) is very similar to the troff formatting people used to have to write to do word processing back in the 70s. We've had WYSIWIG word processors for decades, but somehow this innovation has passed the web by, unless you want to use highly inflexible designs. (sigh)