Book picks of the year

I have a habit of re-reading the books I like best. A good example is Dune, for which the same paperback edition I read in (gulp) 1976 is still on my shelf and barely hanging together. Sadly the same can't be said for my copy of the first three Earthsea books, which fell apart from severe overuse long ago. Fortunately I married someone with her own copy so all is not lost.

Which books of 2009 will join this august company? I read piles of books I liked, but which will I be coming back to?

For me there are two absolute standouts...

A Trace Of Smoke, Rebecca Cantrell

The Ghosts Of Belfast, Stuart Neville

...and there are these great books, all of which can expect to see worn covers and tattered pages:

A Bad Day For Sorry, Sophie Littlefield

The Naked Olympics, Tony Perrottet

The Janissary Tree, Jason Goodwin

Secondhand Spirits, Juliet Blackwell

Nox Dormienda, Kelli Stanley

And there are these two ongoing series which I love:

The Aimée Léduc stories of Cara Black

The SPQR series of John Maddox Roberts

Wishing you all a fantastic 2010!

Gary's status update

Major revision #8 of the second book in the series went to my agent-genius Janet last night.

I'm not quite so deluded as to think my life is fascinating, but I suspect the writer-types reading this are interested in what really happens to a debut author, so here's where we're at:

My life for the last 6 weeks has revolved around book 2. I received superb editorial comments from Joanna Volpe and some fascinating insight from the interns at FinePrint (thanks guys), on the basis of which I did some serious revision. More on book 2 later after I finish with my status.

Book 1 is in production at St Martins, which means they're turning it into something which fits on a bookshelf. Over the coming months, in no particular order, everyone will agree a final title and the art department will work out a cover and I will receive galleys to check. What happens inside the publisher is pretty much a black box to me. I responded to Editor Kathleen's editorial letter months ago, and sent in a character list, author note and acknowledgements, which ended my direct contribution, so now I'm an error correction device when the galleys arrive. Kathleen has been superb about asking my opinion on covers and titles, way beyond the contractual requirement, which I very much appreciate.

Sarah the Publicist, whom I met at Bouchercon, told me that at some point I'll receive a questionnaire about marketing. I look forward to it with amusement and trepidation.

The third book is begun and the opening scenes are flowing nicely. It's set at the Olympics of 460BC and I'm feeling good about it already. There's lots of material I can use, some of it quite bizarre. Bizarre is good.

Book 2 has come out of its revision feeling strong. I can't explain the feeling, but I know when something I've written has crossed the line from merely okay to publishable. I felt book 2 fall into place beneath my hands 4 weeks ago. If you picked it off a shelf in your local bookstore and read some, it would not feel out of place. I had the same feeling with the first book, when at some point I realized what I had was good. If it's of any help to those of you editing your own ms, I got the feeling in both cases while cutting large swathes of perfectly good text to get to the core of the story.

The coming year is going to be huge. I have book 1 coming out, which means after title/cover/galleys I have a book on the shelves and a book tour and Bouchercon. That'll soak up months. In between that Kathleen will probably send the editorial letter for book 2, which means revising book 2. In between that I need to write the third, and I need to get the core of it done in the first half of the year, because the second half is going to be absolute chaos. So as of now I have three books in the air, and I'll be juggling 3 for so long as the series runs.

It's a good problem to have.

Getting inside ancient characters

Any moment now, my agent will receive a Chrissy present: the ms of The Magnesia Sanction (working title) revision 8. It waits only for the Goddess of Punctuation to weave her magic and it's on the way. Which means I have more time to write posts.

Beverly Jennings, during the most recent Roman Mystery Book Chat, made this interesting comment:

I think no matter how hard an author tries, you couldn't completely put yourself in the mindset of an ancient Roman.

I'm sure Beverley's right, but lacking a time machine it's not a testable assertion.

Can I duplicate the mindset of an ancient Roman Greek? Maybe not, though I think I'd have a better chance than most.

A lot of the trick in my view is forgetting. Forgetting 2,000 years of history and culture, and immersing yourself only in what the people of the time knew, read, heard and thought.

For example, you can search the ancient sources as much as you like, and you will not find one word suggesting slavery is anything other than a natural condition.

Christian morality has to go, especially Christian sexual morality. Pericles was considered weird in his own time because he was so besotted with Aspasia that he didn't go to perfectly respectable orgies.

The mediaeval concept of chivalry has to go. That's more than you might think; an awful lot of modern manners derive from chivalry, in particular the social rules for gentlemen and ladies, and the concept of fair play.

Women can't own property, they are property.

Beauty matters.

National patriotism is not a concept. The order of loyalty is to yourself, your family, and to your city.

A very deep understanding of the human condition, far beyond what most people today can manage, because the Greeks experienced life in a fast-forward sort of way. They lived lives which the modern office worker can only dream about (though the dream might be a nightmare). Wild reversals of fortune are the stuff of life.

They believed in luck.

Their Gods are reality. Diotima gets excited about the subject in Magnesia Sanction:
"Can you really look around you, and tell me Love and War and Lust and Death don’t rule our lives? Wisdom and chaos and motherhood and the madness of wine and the beauty of music, they and the seasons and the sun are what we Hellenes worship, and anyone with the wit to open his eyes can see they’re as real as a smack in the face."
The Greeks demanded personal excellence. They had nothing but contempt for anything less, but praised the excellent in extravagant terms, even if the subject was an enemy.

You have to keep in mind that DNA has not changed in a mere few thousand years. The same diverse human nature we see today is exactly the same spread among ancient peoples, from morons to geniuses, the deeply compassionate to the remorselessly self-serving, the lazy to the energetic, the modest to the arrogant, the cowardly to the brave, and all the while the majority are in the middle of the bell curve. The difference between then and now lies not in the nature of the people, but in the way the culture directed their natures.

My stories begin in Athens at the very birth of western civilization. By definition it means we're starting with something which is not western. In fact Athens would have been recognizably Asian or Middle Eastern in mindset. As the series proceeds (the Publishing Gods willing) we see western ideals actually being invented.

Voice in Ancient Mystery

The amazing Irene Hahn hosts a regular online discussion group covering Roman mystery books. I attended the most recent and had a lovely time. If you're interested in ancient mysteries then this is a good place to meet like-minded people. Personally I found it educational (and useful!) to hear what obviously knowledgable people thought of the books they'd read.

I confess every time someone said something positive or negative about a book, I instantly ran my mind across my own work to see if I got a tick or a cross. Someone mentioned they didn't like to see, "OK." In 2 minutes I'd done a global search across three manuscripts and confirmed I was clean. Phew!

Yes, the paranoia of a debut author knows no bounds.

One thing in particular which came up I thought I'd comment on: appropriate voice for characters speaking thousands of years ago. How do you make it sound credible? It's a tough problem. The options are:
  1. Write everything in Attic Greek. This scores points for accuracy but limits the print run to single digits.

  2. Write everything in a manufactured old tone, to give the feeling it was spoken long ago. This inevitably ends up sounding faux-mediaeval, faux-Shakespearean, or faux-epic-fantasy. Worse, the old tone is no more accurate than modern vernacular, because people just didn't speak like that.

  3. Go for totally modern colloquial English. This gives the image of Socrates walking into the room and saying, "Hey bro, watcha doin'?" No. Although in some ways it would be more authentic than the fake old tone, because at least we are saying in current English what was spoken in current Attic Greek. The problem is, colloquialism associates the speaker with a modern cultural grouping which is entirely wrong.

  4. Write more formal English avoiding anachronisms and anything which associates the language with modern culture. This is the way forward.
There are people who've already had to tackle this problem: translators of ancient texts. In particular I think quality translations of Aristophanes are a good model, such as the Penguin edition, because he is utterly irreverent, very funny, and highly colloquial in his own language. So for a good example of how to do it right, read translations of Aristophanes.

By that logic, is "OK" okay? Personally I wouldn't use it, but instead I use "Alright". I can't actually think of a reason why "OK" should be banned, it just doesn't feel right to me.

Dorothy Dix and the Expository Lump

The title sounds like an unpleasant experience at Hogwarts but is in fact something I'm noticing in my own writing as I edit.

My blog posts have reduced in frequency because I've been deep in edits for Book 2, working title The Magnesia Sanction. (The title will change before it sees production). I'm at major revision #8, and I think This Is It, The Final Version. Of course I thought the same for revisions 2 through 7, so what would I know, but in any case I've printed the entire ms and am pacing back and forth in my office, reading the whole book aloud. I find reading aloud essential to

a) get the flow and rhythm right; and
b) find redundant words which I don't need.

BJ Muntain warned me to drink enough so my voice doesn't go hoarse while reading 305 pages. Never fear, each lap takes me past the beer fridge.

What I'm noticing as I read is all my expository lumps are preceded by a Dorothy Dixer.

Wikipedia, which as we all know is never wrong, tells me Dorothy Dix was an early agony columnist in the US. How her name came to be associated with faux questions in the Australian parliament I don't know, but it is nevertheless the case that when an Australian Government minister wants to make a set-piece speech during question time, he arranges for a colleague to ask a totally fake question which allows the minister to produce his prepared speech. This is a cheat, but they do it all the time, and such a fake question is called a Dorothy Dixer.

Expository Lumps are a (relatively) benign cancer which must be excised for the good of the book. One character goes on and on telling another character something they probably should already know. The real target is the reader, who certainly doesn't know whatever is being explained. This is the author's dodgy way of delivering information direct into the reader's brain.

Expository Lump is a particular disease in science fiction. As you know, Captain, the hyperdrive works by folding space into tiny packets of... followed by two pages of exposition. Expository Lump is also a threat in historical writing. As you know, Pericles, the Athenians hold their meetings at the Pnyx, where the people vote...

As you know is the time-honoured method for introducing an expository lump. (If you're a writer, this would be a good moment to do a quick global search on your own ms.) I don't write as you know. Instead, one of my characters asks a really dumb question, purely so another character can tell the reader something.

Yep, that's a Dorothy Dixer.

Incredibly, I don't notice when I write these things in the first draft, but when I read aloud they stand out like a sore thumb. The good news is, the ensuing expository lump is almost never required. My readers, who are much smarter than me, can work out an amazing amount purely from context. When I find an expository lump I remove the lot, then stand back to see if the text still makes sense. Usually it does. At worst, it might need a sentence or two. The other trick which works is to change the scene setting or some other passive element of the story to deliver information by implication.

A Mystery for Amalia

Amalia, in comments to the previous post, said, I love SF, and I don't think I've ever in my life read a mystery.

The challenge is on to suggest some mysteries Amalia, a devotee of SF, might like.

suggested: ...perhaps she'd like Sayers' The Nine Tailors, Allingham's The Fear Sign (aka Sweet Danger?) or Stout's The Doorbell Rang? Or perhaps Ellis Peter's Cadfael novels.

Here's my attempt:

The traditional SF problem story and the traditional mystery have a lot in common. So I'm suggesting stories in which the solution logic is tight and the reader has a fair chance to solve the crime.

I therefore recommend the mysteries of Ngaio Marsh, a New Zealand writer, who in my view is the most logically rigorous mystery writer ever. Which is rather odd since she was an actress and stage director, but there you are. Skip the first in the series and read the others in almost any order. I think among her best are A Surfeit of Lampreys and Off With His Head. (US titles may vary.) Marsh wrote from the 1930s to the 1980s and her detective reflects the period.

I've just finished reading A Trace of Smoke by Rebecca Cantrell, set in early Nazi Berlin, and it is brilliant and logically tight. I'm sure it would be SF-reader friendly.

I second Loretta in thinking the Cadfael stories of Ellis Peters might go down well.

I'm assuming everyone's read the Sherlock Holmes stories, but if not, they're mandatory.

Isaac Asimov wrote a series of mysteries: Tales of the Black Widowers. Coming from an SF background they might be an easy introduction.

Does anyone else have suggestions?

Genre and MICE

Because I feel not enough people hate me, I thought I'd offer some comments about genre.

Genre is defined by various acknowledged plot devices. Mysteries have a crime to solve. Romance has a relationship to bloom. SF has a future or alternate world to explore. A pedant can get arbitrarily picky about the definitions and go looking for exceptions until it seems no definition fits any genre, but the clear reality is we all know genre when we see it.

The only type of writing which doesn't get boxed into a genre is literary fiction. It's always surprised me that people don't consider literary fiction to be a genre in its own right. Surely literary fiction is the genre in which nothing much happens?

By definition, if something interesting happens -- a murder, a romance, a war, a conspiracy, a plot to destroy the world -- then the book falls into one of the genres, and so it's not "literary", with the implication it's not as well written as if it were literary. Which is ridiculous because I have rarely come across a literary novel I considered as well written as the best genre novels, and when I have it was because the literary was among the best of its own kind. All that means is a top quality book is just as good as any other top quality book irrespective of genre, and a cruddy book can't be saved by being literary.

The SF writer Orson Scott Card talks in his excellent and perceptive books on writing about what he calls the MICE quotient: Milieu, Idea, Character and Event. His idea is these four attributes characterize any given story. Every story carries all four attributes of course, but in differing degree and mix. Mysteries and SF tend to be Idea stories: there's an intellectual problem to solve. Military adventure tends to be driven by the grand event, usually a war. Fantasies often exist only to show off their world: they are predominantly Milieu stories. In fact most books major in one of the MICE attributes, minor in a second, and the remaining two trail along.

In this scheme the mysteries of Agatha Christie are Idea first, Character second, followed by Milieu and Event. Solving the intellectual problem of the crime is always dominant for her, and she peoples her stories with all manner of eccentric characters. The milieu may add to the charm but is much less a consideration. Grand events play almost no part in her stories.

The MICE categorization of my historical mysteries is probably Character first, Milieu second, then Idea, with Event trailing a distant fourth. That's despite me writing a genre in which the mysery to solve would normally be dominant, but I know from reader feedback that my characters steal the show, and the unusual period I'm writing in becomes almost a character in its own right. This is only my own guess and if any of my early readers see this I'd be fascinated to know what MICE quotient you'd give me.

Orson Scott Card's idea makes a great deal of sense to me. Note that it does away with genre altogether and is much more about the style of the book rather than the plot devices.

I suggest most people are consistent in their preference for books with a given MICE categorization, at least by the first two letters. For example an IC book is probably (but not certainly) either SF or a mystery. Is there a strong cross-over between SF and mystery readers? Yes there is.

The forces of blackness assault Bill Cameron

My agent-sibling Bill Cameron once said he was psychologically scarred for life because his step-mum made him eat Vegemite as a child. (I gather she was of an antipodean disposition).

It was Bill's trauma which inspired me to take Vegemite on my trip to the US, so I was devastated when he decided not to go to Bouchercon. Two kind ladies called Carrie and Jeanette saved the day when they offered to carry Bill's jar back to Portland.

And here is the result:

I didn't mention this until now because I wanted Bill to, errr, appreciate the surprise. Thank you Carrie and Jeannette!

Temples faced the rising sun

The amazingly brilliant Dr Alun Salt has published a paper called
The Astronomical Orientation of Ancient Greek Temples in which he demonstrates that temples were oriented when possible to face the rising sun.

This instantly caused me to say, "Uh oh," and go back and read every temple description I'd ever written. Luckily for me I'd only once committed myself, and I got it right that one time because Pausanias had told me the answer.

The title link is to the actual paper. Or you can read Alun's own blog article on same, or else read the article in the Times Online (!), or else read Mary Beard's commentary. Talk about making a splash.

Alun is a regular reader and occasional commenter on this blog. He's even been known to link to me, which frankly I take as a huge compliment because he's a for-real professsional archaeoastronomer and seriously knows what he's talking about.

Negotiating the fate of characters

Every now and then my wife forbids me to kill a character. A good example is Bathocles in my short story The Pasion Contract where, even as I was writing it, she told (ordered) me, "Bathocles has to live."

The moment Helen wants to protect someone, it's a signal for me to maim, mutilate or destroy the guy, because it's the characters you care about that mean something when they suffer. I've never actually diverted the plot to run over a character Helen likes, but then I've never really needed to since if you're stuck in one of my stories then you're already in great danger.

This has led to some conversations that would be considered unusual in most households, such as an intense and prolonged negotiation over how many toes I was allowed to cut off one nice but care-worn fellow, Helen arguing for none and me for all but one per foot. The decision turned on how many toes were required for the character to hobble about for the rest of his life. Some of the negotiation was carried out in a public eatery and I wish to apologise to the people sitting next to us.

This reached the stage where I said, "You do realise, don't you, these people don't actually exist?" She did, but apparently it doesn't matter, which is good news for me because it means the characters are working, but probably bad news for the characters. The moral would appear to be, try hard to stay out of my stories.

In praise of Helen, Goddess of Punctuation

I've been deep in major edits for the last week or so, and this tends to put my head into a weird place. Just ask my wife Helen, who has to put up with me in this mode.

Helen is, of course, the perfect name for the wife of a Classical Greek mystery writer. She's my first reader for everything. I know I have a scene right when I want to read it out to her before I'm finished.

Helen is the Goddess of Punctuation. When she checks my writing, the conversation goes something like this:

Gary: What did you think of the scene?

Helen: There's a missing semi-colon on the first page, I fixed all the commas and broke up several sentences that were too long and--

Gary: No no no! What did you think about the story?

Helen: The story? Oh, it was fine.

At least, that's what used to happen. We now have a deal whereby she has to keep her hands off the text and can only comment about the story until the book's finished. Then Helen is unleashed and she fixes everything. Kathleen, Janet and Jo have all commented how clean my manuscripts are. It's nothing to do with me and everything to do with my wife.

Helen has an astonishing memory for text of any sort. She not only knows off the top of her head the phone number of everyone she's ever called, she can tell you what their phone numbers were twenty years ago too. I haven't remembered a single phone number since we got married; I don't need to when I have a walking database beside me. Helen used to do immigration law, when she could recite from memory the entire immigration act. Not only that, but the applicable law for a visa is whatever it was on the day of application, and there are hundreds of tweaks made to the rules every year. If you nominated any random date, Helen could recite what the law was on that particular day. This remarkable ability found its way into my stories.

Here is Diotima, wondering why the other priestesses are a little bit annoyed with her. Nico says:
“I suppose, when you arrived here, they asked you to learn the local prayers?”

“Every temple in every city has its own festivals and rituals and prayers. I could hardly do my job if I didn't know them.”

“Tell me, did you by any chance learn the rituals better than women who've been here for years?”

“Well...maybe,” she admitted. “The actions were a bit complex, but mostly I only had to remember some simple lines.”

“How many simple lines?”

“I don't know, I didn't count. Should I have?” She chewed on her thumbnail as she thought about it. “I did get through all the rituals for the year, plus the special events...umm, three thousand, maybe four thousand?”

“Let me guess; you had them word perfect within a month.” Diotima could recite much of the Iliad from memory. If she hadn't been a woman, she could have become a famous bard.

“Eighteen days. Practically all of it rhymed.”

“And now you're wondering why the other priestesses dislike you? Diotima, couldn't you at least pretend to make a mistake?”

“Is it my fault their memories aren't good?”
Despite her outstanding memory Helen has zero willpower when it comes to study. When we were first going out she did everything in her power to avoid studying for her law exams. This drove me up the wall, to the point at which one day I removed all the shoes from her apartment so she couldn't leave, and then left her to spend the day with nothing to do but study. When I returned that night her oven was spotless. She'd spent the whole day cleaning it.

Give me some of that old time religion

How hard would it be to practice the ancient Greek religion these days?

Yes, I'm aware there are people doing their own modern versions of the ancient worship, but I'm talking about worshiping the Gods and Goddesses as it was done back in the good old days; done so well that an ancient Greek transported 2,500 years into the future would recognise his own religion.

The answer is: very tough indeed.

To start with, if you're not sacrificing animals, then you're just not doing it right.

Sorry, but that's the way it is. Animal sacrifice is central to ancient religion but anathema to virtually anyone practicing modern paganism. I certainly wouldn't condone it; it would probably be illegal in most countries; but if you want to do religion the way the Greeks did then you don't have a choice. Every important ritual and festival required a sacrifice, and an important element was that the sacrifice "agree". It's fine to have a BBQ afterwards, but you'll need some butchering skills which aren't exactly common these days.

You need an almost encyclopaedic knowledge of Homer.

The Greeks had no Bible. Their entire written experience of the Gods came from Homer, and from another ancient author called Hesiod, who amongst other things wrote Theogeny, which defined the relationships between the Gods and Goddesses.

At heart the Greeks expected the Gods to behave the way Homer wrote them. It's as if we took our Christian viewpoint from Shakespeare.

Learn a lot of hymns and odes.

Actually this is good news, because most of them are very good. There were a whole pile of standards and favourites, which when you get down to it is the same as having psalms. The difference is you need to memorize a few thousand lines, because normal people didn't have books with this stuff written in. Not to worry, you'll have plenty of time to memorize while the building work is underway.

You need a cult statue. And a temple.

The Greeks did almost everything in the open air. Except religion. For that they built very elegant, very expensive temples. Inside each temple is a cult statue. The Greeks believed -- and I mean believed -- that the God or Goddess would inhabit the cult statue from time to time. (If a statue transforming into a God seems strange, consider the premise behind the Christian mass. It's called transubstantiation.)

So you need to get together with some friends and buy some decent land. Put a Greek temple on it. The design is very well known but it's a non-standard form these days so the material and labor might be a trifle expensive.

When you've finished the temple hire the best sculptor you can afford for the cult stature. Something ten times larger than life in ivory, gold and silver would be just great, but if that's outside the budget, you may have to settle for a lifesize marble or a cast bronze.

Did I mention you have to do one of these statue/temple combos for each God?

You don't need every minor deity, but you definitely have to cover all the majors. That's Zeus, Hera, Apollo, Athena, Aphrodite, Artemis, Demeter, Dionysus, Hephaestus, Ares, Hermes and Poseidon. Don't forget any of them; not if you know what's good for you, because these guys are known for the odd spot of jealousy, they're easily offended, and they can do serious damage. Ask any Trojan.

Witchcraft in Ancient Greece

Witchcraft was alive and well in Greece.

The best and certainly the most numerous examples of Ancient Greeks using magic are the curse tablets which have been found by the hundreds. They're usually inscribed in lead.

This is a curse tablet found at Pella. It says (and I paraphrase a great deal to make it readable): I call upon upon the daimones to bind the marriage of Thetima and Dionysophon, so that Dionysophon never wed any woman but me. May I grow old with Dionysophon, and no one else. Have pity upon me dear daimones, for I am alone and abandoned. Do this for me so wretched Thetima perishes miserably and let me be happy and blessed.

Such a nice lass.

Anyone could write their own curse tablet, and many did. The tablets were usually buried, often in cemetaries, or thrown into water or wells. The idea was to get the curse as close as possible to the more chthonic of the Gods. Curse tablets when they invoked a deity usually called upon Hades (Lord of the Dead), Persephone (His Queen), and Hermes Cthonius (Messenger to the Underworld). Clearly not deities you wanted to meet socially.

You could also hire a professional for all your magic needs. Plato's Republic(!) actually mentions professional magicians, of whom Plato says in Book 2, section 364C : ...and that if a man wishes to harm an enemy, at slight cost he will be enabled to injure the just and unjust alike, since [the magicians] are masters of spells and enchantments that constrain the gods to serve their end.

Apuleius in The Golden Ass calls Thessaly the land of magic and witchcraft.

A Greek witch was called a pharmakis, from which we have pharmacist and pharmacology. Their basic job was herbs, medicines and poison. The odds are very good that a sick person might go see the local witch woman rather than an expensive doctor. The brilliant historical writer Mary Renault mentions this in The Praise Singer. She has the poet Simonides explain his great old age by saying whenever he fell ill in a strange town he avoided the doctors and asked for the local wise woman.

There was a hazy zone between between Gods and Goddesses and normal humans. In between were many demi-god half-breeds who had special attributes on account of their divine side, but who nevertheless were mortal. I don't think they count for real witchcraft but some of them are very witchy.

Circe was either a witch or a minor Goddess, depending on which version you read. Either way, she had a tendency to turn people into animals.

Medea was an outright witch and used ointments and potions to both poison and heal. She is often described as a priestess of Hekate, but I suspect it's a later association. The Goddess Hekate is worth a book, but the grossly over-simplified story is she's associated with witchcraft and the darkness, potions and poison, and is almost certainly pre-Greek.

Hekate is the only Goddess whose priestesses might automatically be considered to practice witchcraft, though even in their case it's unclear. Other priestesses had no magic power of their own. They did their work through sacrifice and prayer, asking the Gods to intercede, or in the case of the Pythoness at Delphi, acting as a conduit. There was a world of difference between a priestess and a witch.

I have a scene in one of my books in which a witch woman appears. I'd love to quote it to you, but unfortunately it would be a huge spoiler.

Thanks so much Amalia for the idea of writing this.

Change of comment policy

After a comment by Carrie on twitter and the resulting feedback I'm going to change the comment policy on the blog.

Word verification is now off. This is an attempt to improve the reader experience, because it seems captcha is annoying people a lot.

I have not turned moderation on. This is an experiment to see if I get hit with spam. If I do, moderation will have to go on because I really don't want the spam.

Please let me know what you think works best!

The hermae, and mutilation thereof

This is a herm...

and this is another herm...

A herm was a bust of Hermes, who as you surely know was the Messenger of the Gods.

Athens was riddled with hermae. There was a herm at every cross-street in the city. Many houses installed a herm outside their front door. In the Agora was a platform with a hundred or more of them.

Hermes, as Messenger of the Gods, was protector of travellers. By placing his bust anywhere a traveller might pass, the superstitious Greeks were doing their best to protect anyone out on the streets.

Interestingly, Hermes was also protector of thieves, presumably because as an occupational hazard thieves often need to travel quickly at short notice.

In Athens these busts would have been set atop a short pillar, head height at most, and if you looked to the base of the pillar you would probably have seen the carving of an erect phallus pointing up at you, another symbol of good fortune.

These pictures are from the Met., Roman copies of Greek originals, and they are very good quality indeed compared to most hermae. Think of all the cross-streets and houses in Athens: there were thousands of these hermae. Top sculptors would have reserved their valuable time for more profitable work. Probably most hermae were churned out by low-end sculptors and journeymen learning their trade.

One morning in 415BC, Athens awoke to discover every herm in the city had been damaged. Someone had obviously gone about the city overnight destroying all the divine good luck symbols, and considering the many hundreds of hermae involved it could only have been a calculated act of sabotage. This incident has gone down in history as The Mutilation of the Hermae.

Athens was paralyzed with fear. This wasn't mere sacrilege; to most people the Gods were as real as a smack in the face, and a God's cult statue was a place the God could inhabit. The mutilation of the hermae was like kicking the God Hermes in the balls a hundred times over.

The Athenians expected direct and dire divine retribution at any moment. A frenzied search for the culprit began at once. In the panic it only became necessary for someone to suggest a culprit for the accused to be arrested, and more than one of these unlucky men were executed, but the panic went on. Fairly soon debtors were accusing their creditors as a novel means of debt cancellation.

Then suspicion fell upon a fascinating scapegoat: Alcibiades, the first cousin once removed of Pericles. Indeed Pericles, though dead by this date, had been legal guardian of Alcibiades as a child. Alcibiades was brilliant, daring, wealthy, handsome, clever, opportunistic, egotistical, dissolute and utterly self-serving. This was the sort of insane thing Alcibiades might do for a joke.

Now Alcibiades was guilty of any number of crimes in his life, but this probably wasn't one of them. Nevertheless the mud stuck, and even though by then he'd departed to lead an invasion of Sicily, he was recalled to stand trial.

Alcibiades wasn't a complete moron; he turned tail and ran, straight to the Spartans with whom Athens was at war. In revenge, Alcibiades advised the Spartans how best to defeat Athens, and his advice was good.

And so the bad luck of the mutilation came to pass, because the man charged with the crime contributed to the downfall of Athens.

It must be added Alcibiades changed sides again later, and Athens took him back before expelling him once more. If he were alive today, Alcibiades would be a junk bond trader, or a used car salesman, or a world leader, or possibly all three at once.

The real culprit of the Mutilation of the Hermae and the motive for it remains ones of the ancient world's greatest unsolved mysteries.

National Novel Revision Month

I imagine most of you know about NaNoWriMo, in which writers do their best to produce 50K words in a month. I'm in two minds about it.

I used to be almost entirely negative, but Sophie Littlefield credits NaNoWriMo with making her the success she is today. Sophie's brilliant. If she reckons NaNoWriMo's a good thing, then I'm not going to argue (much).

My biggest worry is NaNoWriMo doesn't reward revision, which is 90% of good writing. NaNoWriMo is encouraging people to concentrate on the easy bit.

I therefore propose December be declared National Novel Revision Month.

Writers who've completed NaNoWriMo revise their ms in December, and then send the original and the revision to three other randomly selected WriMos, without telling the readers which is which. If 3 out of 3 readers pick the revision as the better then you have successfully completed NaNoRevMo.

What were Ancient Greek tents made of?

Olympia turned into a tent city during the Sacred Games. People came from all over Greece and there was no permanent accommodation, so each city was allocated its own space and hundreds of tents sprang up. One can only imagine what the place looked like after thousands of men trampled the ground for a week. I'm thinking something like Glastonbury during the festival.

Okay, now what were the tents made of? It's a minor detail, but this is the sort of thing I have to get right. This turned into a mercifully quick piece of book research. Probably half of you already know the answer, but I didn't and I can't resist telling.

The obvious answer is canvas, but did the Greeks have canvas?

The answer is yes. In fact, according to the Shorter OED, our word canvas derives from the name of the material the Greeks used to make it: κάνναβις. Let me help you with that word. The kappa at the front is an English k of course, but often written as a Roman c. The two v-like letters in the middle are actually nu and have an n sound. The squiggle at the end is an s. Which gives us the English word: cannabis. Not only is the English cannabis precisely a Greek word, but canvas was made from hemp.

Canvas and cannabis are cognate. Now that I know it, it's obvious, but I never would have guessed.

Strange things I have swallowed

I've had so much fun torturing Americans with Vegemite, it seems only fair I relate something which happened to me.

It was on Crete, many years ago, in the city of Iraklion, which is the island's largest town. I was backpacking around, and as backpackers do, a group of us staying at the youth hostel got together and went off for dinner at a nearby taverna.

Most of us ordered the rabbit, a local traditional dish. The plates of yummy food duly arrived and we all tucked in.

About halfway through the meal one of the other backpackers said, "This is lovely cat."

No one believed him but he kept insisting. We were sure he was having us on until he confessed he was a vet, held up a bone from his plate, and said, “This is a cat bone, it's a different shape to the one in rabbits.”

The Met, UCLA and the Getty's book research time

I've had a fantastic time in the US: Bouchercon, where I met amazing people, New York where I met the fine people at FinePrint, and also met Editor Kathleen for the first time (I met Kathleen's boss Keith Kahla in Indianapolis, where he was wandering about in a state of incognito).

The final phase of the trip was book research. I spent a very intense 2 days at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and then flew to LA, where for 3 days I've been doing book research at UCLA and the Getty Villa, and very successful it's been too. The Met has an excellent section on Ancient Greece, and the Getty Villa is a simply astounding collection.

My total photo count across the Met and the Getty Villa is 719 images.

What do I do with them all? I use the photos for artefacts in the books, and since I never know what I'm going to need in advance I cover all bets. What I'm mostly targeting is everyday items to give you realistic descriptions.

For example, say Nico goes into a bath house. Classical Greece has soap, but no one wants to use it because it's made of goat fat and ashes. Instead, a slave rubs Nico with oil and then scrapes away the dirty oil and the dead outer layer of his skin with a metal implement called a strigil. But what's a strigil look like? It looks like this:

This might be the very flask and strigil the slave used on Nico. This strigil is larger than the Roman equivalent, and note the way it's curved on the inside.

Seeing the strigil tells me lots of things, and inspires possibilities. If enemies rushed into the bath house and attacked Nico with knives, he could realistically grab this strigil to parry the blows until he can get away. No, that doesn't happen in any of the books, but now that I've seen one, it might.

It's going to take me a long, long time to catalogue everything I captured, but as I do I'll post anything that strikes me as being of general interest.

So tomorrow night I hop on a big plane to go home. It's been lots of fun in the US. Do look after the place until I can get back next year.

How to poison an intern

I've just spent a delightful week in New York, where amongst other things I met all the fine people at FinePrint Literary Agency. The lady in the middle of the picture is Joanna Volpe, who was Janet's godsend when I submitted my first book and is now a successful agent in her own right with Nancy Coffey. The others are the interns at FinePrint. Missing is Intern Mitch. (Mitch, if you send me a photo I'll put it up.)

I think it'd be fun if the interns said hello and told us something about themselves in comments. I'll edit their words into the main text.

The people in this picture are among the few who have read both my first two books, so they're miles ahead of the rest of you. I spent an amazing afternoon with the interns asking them to tell me what they liked and disliked in the books, which let me tell you was eye opening. Mostly it caused me to say things such as, "OMG I never noticed that!" with the occasional, "What do you mean you don't remember the rat joke?"

The little yellow jars on the table are Vegemite, the closest thing Australia has to a national food. In a fit of more-ethnic-than-thou, I brought five jars, which the interns tucked into eagerly.

And quickly rejected.

They now know what I meant when I said you have to spread it thinly. Vegemite is strong and salty, but full of vitamin B. Not that I'm offended, I had a feeling this would happen. I once fed some Vegemite to a Canadian who clutched his throat and choked, "You feed this to children?"

And now a word from Deirdre:
This is Intern Deirdre (far right). We all agreed it was a lot of fun discussing your manuscripts with you, so I'm glad it was helpful for you.

A little bit about me... I recently graduated from the University of Michigan with a degree in English Language and Literature, and I'm trying to break into the world of book publishing via my fantastic internship with FinePrint Literary Management and Nancy Coffey Literary and Media Representation. These people are wonderful and know EVERYTHING there is to know about books and publishing.

Thank you again for the Vegemite (even if I did give mine away to Jo)!
From Intern Cassandra. I swear this was not a paid advertisement...
We had a great time meeting you - it was so much fun meeting an author and getting to talk to you before the rest of the world sees your amazing books and propels you to J.K. Rowling fame!

I'm a huge fan of your books - I don't think they're quite like anything out there right now. I mean, Mary Renault is all well and good, but I like a little humor and mystery with my history. I urge all you readers to run out and buy the book the second it comes out - it's impeccably researched and a total page-turner.

The only Vegemite-taker amongst the lot of them was Jo, shown here eating the traditional Vegemite sandwich as per the Men At Work song of years ago.

I suggested by the way FinePrint should post pictures of their offices so people can see what a literary agency looks like, and both Peter Rubie and Janet recoiled in horror.

The Night Things Changed

So I am sitting next to my agent Janet Reid at the Macavity awards at Bouchercon. Another of Janet's authors, Dana Cameron, is up for a Macavity for her short story The Night Things Changed.

The speaker gets to the short story award and calls out the nominees. With every name I can feel Janet tensing like a spring being wound tight.

"And the winner is...Dana Cameron!"

Everyone else is clapping politely. The over-wound spring beside me has exploded. Janet has shot into the air, cheering loudly and clapping. My ears are ringing. Lots of people are looking our way.

That's the sort of agent you want to have.

Congratulations Dana!

Amazing people I met at Bouchercon

I've been putting off this post for days, because I'm about to do the near-impossible by telling you about the amazing people I met at Bouchercon, the mystery fan conference. I'm not going to describe the conference, I'm sure many people will do that better than me, and by the time I get this post finished they probably already will have. Instead I want to tell you about the people who amazed me personally. There are two problems with this. Firstly, words fail me in a few cases, and secondly, I am in total fear of leaving someone out. I wouldn't be susprised if there's a followup post to this one.

Jeremiah Healy. When I arrived at the hotel I wandered about the foyer like a lost sheep, looking for friends. There were people attending who I knew, I just didn't know what most of them looked like. This left me staring at people's stomachs, which would have been rather odd were that not where most of the name tags hung. When I ran out of stomachs and still hadn't seen a name I recognized, I hung about, forlorn. Jeremiah spotted me for a clueless newbie, introduced himself, took me by the arm, and forcibly introduced me to people. He's a kind man and a fine host. I couldn't have delved into Bouchercon as quickly as I did without him (and might still be staring at stomachs).

The first person Jeremiah introduced me to was Ruth Dudley Edwards. She writes satyrical mysteries. The measure of her kindness is that when Janet tapped me on the shoulder, Ruth told her to be nice to me.

Janet Reid. I'm sorry, but all the tales of snark and shark are utter rubbish. She's lovable. It's worth signing with her just to enjoy her generosity as a hostess to her authors. I'm quite sure Patrick and Dan would agree.

Patrick Lee. You're going to be reading The Breach. It's scary how good it is. Patrick and I talked a little about his next story. He's such a quiet, unassuming guy, but he comes up with plots I couldn't have thought of in a million years. The moment I heard it I was fascinated. You will be too.

Dan Krokos. I'd call him sweet except guys don't say things like that about other guys. I'm pretty sure Dan was the youngest person there. I have a permanent inferiority complex after meeting Dan. He completes a book every 6 months.

Juliet Blackwell wrote Secondhand Spirits, a fun story of a witch who runs an antique clothing store in Haight-Ashbury. I'd seen the cover and read the first chapter on her web site before I met her, and I have to say the cover is one of the best I've ever seen. After I met her, I knew I wanted to read the book, because Juliet is an amazingly fun person. I'm halfway through it as I write this. I suspect Juliet and I share an appreciation of faintly ridiculous situations.

As far as I can tell, Juliet and the amazing Sophie Littlefield are evil twins. Frankly, I'd go to the next Bouchercon purely to meet them again. Sophie wrote A Bad Day For Sorry, which you may have seen Janet raving about. Like me, she's a Minotaur author. If the book is anything like its author, then it's way cool.

Sophie and Juliet are my new image consultants. Stay tuned for a whole new Gary. This arrangement was made after a couple of glasses of wine but I don't regret it (yet).

Stuart Neville is one of the nicest guys you could hope to meet, in addition to having written the utterly awesome Ghosts of Belfast. In fact he's such good company we stayed up drinking until 3am. As far as I'm concerned it was well worth it for his company, though poor Stuart may have felt differently next morning when he had to get up in time to check out and take a flight. Sorry Stuart. Seriously, read Ghosts of Belfast.

When I saw the name John Maddox Roberts on the attendee list I made it a personal mission to track him down and tell him he was my hero. John Roberts was the first person ever to write an ancient historical mystery: the SPQR series, featuring Decius Metellus. He invented the ancient mystery, and the rest of us are following the basic structure he devised. Despite my search John found me first, because Jeremiah told John I was looking for him. John very kindly spent most of a morning talking with me about the art of the ancient mystery, and throughout the conversation my brain was looping on OH MY GOD I'M TALKING HISTORICAL MYSTERIES WITH JOHN MADDOX ROBERTS. I learned more about writing for my field in those few hours than the rest of the week combined.

Cara Black writes the Paris Mysteries starring Aimee Leduc. I'd read some of them long before Bouchercon and I'll be reading them all now, because Cara is a friend. (And I'll add she helped Stuart and I along with that 3am target...). Cara and Stuart put a lot of effort into thinking of a title for my first book! My first title is still up in the air, but perhaps not for much longer after their determined attempt produced some fine and frequently hilarious ideas. Acropolis Now deserves special mention.

Kelli Stanley is a fellow Minotaur author who came up with an astonishing idea: Roman noir. Kelli is a for-real scholar fluent in both Latin and Ancient Greek. The most amazing thing I heard at Bouchercon was Kelli saying, "I wasn't happy with the translations of Catallus so I did my own." Despite which she's written something which is pure noir entertainment, but in Roman Britain. Wow.

Tasha Alexander and Andrew Grant met for the first time at last year's Bouchercon. At this year's they're engaged! Plenty of people are urging them to get married at the next. The ceremony would certainly make an interesting addition to the program in between the panel discussions. I want it on record I was the first person to suggest Tasha and Andrew write a book together. Andrew's brother Lee Child said no the moment I suggested it, and so did Janet when she heard my brilliant idea. With support like that, what could possibly go wrong? Remember, you heard it here first. But sadly I don't think Tasha and Andrew will be co-writing any time soon.

I met Peter Rozovsky of the fascinating Detectives Without Borders. Peter moderated one of the most fun and interesting panels, Lost in Translation, on the joys of translating mysteries between languages.

Yrsa Sigurðardóttir is an icelandic writer who was on Peter's panel and I got to meet her later. She had interesting things to say about the challenge of writing crime in a country which has almost none.

Robert Pepin, who translates books into and out of French and publishes his own line of mysteries in France. Robert has forever tagged me in the minds of the attendees of the translation panel as, "That Australian guy."

Jonathon Quist looks much more like a writer than I do. It was a pleasure to meet and thank him in person for getting me a ticket for the Getty Villa before I arrived. It's great when tweet friends become real friends. Thanks Jonathon!

It's been two days since Bouchercon closed, and I'm missing them all already. I understand now why people go to conferences. I'll have to go next year for more.

My Life In Ruins

I wouldn't normally watch a romantic comedy, except maybe if it was the only alternative to taking, say, hemlock. But there I was on a big plane for 12 hours, on the first leg of the journey to Bouchercon: total transit time a bit over 25 hours in case you're wondering.

I did manage to write two scenes for the third book while in flight, but it wasn't the most inspiring environment, so I had a look at the movies. There was one called My Life In Ruins, about a tour guide who takes tourists around the ruins of Greece and inevitably finds true love.

How badly could they screw this up, I wonder. So I watch it.

I can't comment on the movie, not being a romantic comedy connoisseur, except to say if this is typical then hemlock might actually be the better alternative. But the movie went from Olympia to Delphi to the Acropolis, and to my astonishment, they shot the real sites from good angles. The heroine trots out whole sequences of facts about the sites, and as far as I could tell on the fly she got them all correct.

I'm not sure this is enough to make up for the rest of the movie though.

Off to Bouchercon

I'm off to Bouchercon tomorrow morning, leaving in 9 hours. I haven't preset any blog posts because

a) I would need too many; and

b) I'm rather hoping to blog while in the US, hotel internet connections willing.

There'll be a short delay before next post. Total travel time exceeds 24 hours, and then you have to allow time for my brain to re-congeal.

I've lost count of the number of times I've been to the US. I know it's more than 14. What'll be exciting this time is meeting the people, very different people from any previous trip: writers, fans, editors, and the odd agent.

Gary's back, for a few days at least

I am returned from a very relaxing week's holiday in the Whitsundays, on Hamilton Island, all of which is part of the Great Barrier Reef. Highly recommended, especially if you have kids.

The Whitsunday group of islands was discovered and named by Captain Cook, who US readers will know better for finding Hawaii, but in his extra time he also discovered the east coast of Australia. Hamilton Island is named for Lady Hamilton, mistress of Lord Nelson.

Cook certainly sailed the Whitsunday passage, but I never expected to see another naval vessel make the same trip. I definitely never thought to see one from the room in which we were staying:

This is an Australian Navy warship at the southern end of the passage, which we woke to see one morning. It looks like it has plenty of room, but what it's heading towards is this:

Which is another view from our room. The second view is to the left of the top one.

I have sailed these waters in a 40 foot yacht, and believe me, once you get through that gap in the second picture, there isn't a lot of water under your keel. Even at high tide there are places where you have less than a meter to spare.

So I am watching this navy ship steam up, wondering at what point it's going to ground.

The navy ship stops, backs, turns, and exits the way it came in.

What happened? Did they make a wong turn? Are our captains that incompetent? Did some junior officer blow it?

Next morning we are at the beach, and up comes the same ship. On the same course. It stops at the same point, backs, and exits the way it came.

I'm at a loss to explain, unless they were practising how to get out of a dead end, using a real dead end.

I kept writing on the holiday, and I was surprisingly productive even using a notepad and a pen and writing only when the girls were doing their own thing. I am disconcerted to report that lying on a lounge on a gorgeous tropical island, next to a pool with women wearing bikinis, I was not as distracted as I am by my internet connection at home. This is a sad commentary on my personality, but also does not bode well for the time I spend on the net. Clearly I'd be more productive if I didn't spend so much time doing netty things.

I'm not home for long. In three and a bit days I get on a plane for the US and Bouchercon.

I am slightly amazed to see my pre-positioned posts actually appeared. Thank you everyone who stayed with me! I've replied to your comments, and fun they were to read too.

No racism in the classical world?

As far as I know, there was no racism in the classical world, in the modern sense of prejudice by skin color.

I originally wrote this as a reply in comments to a previous post, but the subject deserves its own spot. The absence of evidence cannot be taken for evidence of absence, but it is the case that there is zero evidence for racism, not in Greece, and not in Roman times either to my knowledge. This might seem hard to believe for a modern reader, but anyone who wants to claim racism existed would need to come up with some solid evidence.

The classical world did of course have slavery, and lots of it, but this can't be equated with racism since they didn't care what color your skin was, and many societies were perfectly happy to enslave their own people and ethnically identical neighbors.

Social stratification based on skin color is not known anywhere in the classical world. I think the historical record is probably complete enough that we can say it either didn't exist, or if it did, was a pathologically small sample far from the norm. If anyone knows of a counter-example, feel free to tell us in comments.

The caste system was probably being invented in India around this time, and that probably counts, but India is a long way from the Mediterranean and is not normally considered part of the western classical heritage.

Tribalism however is very evident. The major conflicts in the Greek world are split between the Dorian and Ionian super-tribes. The alliances in the Peloponnesian War are split along Dorian/Ionian lines. But these tribes are genetically identical.

Similarly the Greeks and Persians had a tendency to kill each other, but this was clearly geopolitics and in particular a huge divide between the two in system of government; individuals married across the cultures and a number of high profile Greeks medized. (Medized means adopted Persian culture). Greeks who medized were looked on in contempt by other Greeks. This was because the Greeks considered themselves culturally superior to everyone except the Egyptians, so a Greek who medized was rejecting his own culture.

Other than Greece/Persia, the other great neverending conflicts of the classical world were Rome/Carthage and Rome/Asia. The Rome/Asia conflict was essentially a continuation of the Greece/Persia wars: geopolitics and culture clash and because, frankly, fighting each other is what empires did to pass the time back in those days.

But there was genuine repugnance between Rome and Carthage, the only instance I can think of where emotional hatred was at the core of an ancient war. The Romans were horrified that Carthage practiced large scale child sacrifice. The Carthaginians loathed Roman dominance. The Mediterranean simply wasn't large enough for the two of them. It led to three Punic Wars, which Rome was lucky to eventually win, and they razed Carthage to the ground to ensure there were no mistakes about a fourth war. It's hard to see this as racism though because, although Carthage is in North Africa, it was a Phoenician colony.

The view on adultery and rape

Although Draco's laws were long gone by classical times, his law on adultery and rape is relevant to explain the ancient mindset, which was somewhat weird by our modern standards. My female readers are warned to take some tranquilizers before going on...

A man seducing a married woman could legally be killed, as we saw in the previous post, but if he had raped the wife, then under Draco's laws he would have been subject only to a fine paid to the husband.

The reasoning is that by rape he has damaged the husband's property. (I did warn you about the tranqilizers.) But if she consented then something much worse has happened: the seducer has stolen the wife's affections. Hence rape was the lesser crime.

Notice in both adultery and rape the husband is considered the victim. Xenophon had this to say: When a wife has sexual intercourse by accident (! he means rape), husbands do not honor them the less on this account, if the wife's affection remains unaffected.

A real life Athenian criminal case

Picture the scene: a suspicious husband returns home early and questions his wife's slave. The slave admits, under pressure, that her mistress is having an affair and the adulterous couple are upstairs at that moment. The enraged husband grabs his sword and rushes upstairs. He discovers his wife and her lover naked in bed and kills the man on the spot.

The man's family charge the husband with murder. There are no police in Athens, all prosecutions are carried out by private citizens.

In the ensuing court case, the wife testifies she saw her husband kill her lover.

The house slave testifies as to what happened and says she saw the killing. The slave is tortured as she speaks, as the law requires. A slave required to testify against her owner might lie to avoid later punishment; the immediate pain of torture is intended to overcome the fear of a later beating.

The neighbors testify too, because the suspcious husband had rounded them up as he returned home to act as witnesses when he suspected adultery. They had run upstairs after the husband and they too testify to seeing the husband kill his wife's lover.

The jury, having heard the eye witness reports, instantly dismisses the charges and the husband goes home a free man.

This really happened, in the early 4th century. The husband's name was Euphiletus. The dead lover was Eratosthenes (not the man of the same name who was Librarian at Alexandria a hundred years later). We don't know the name of the wife.

Adultery was illegal. If a man seduced a married woman then the penalty for the man was death. Since, as I said, there was no police force, it was perfectly acceptable for citizens to deliver DIY justice, as long as they were later found to be in the right. If the husband had dragged the body of the man into the street they might have got him for littering, but there was no way this was anything but a legal killing.

However if Euphiletus had not found the lovers in bed, but had later passed Eratosthenes in the street and punched him in the nose, then Euphiletus would have been the one in trouble for assault, because the burden of proof lies with the aggressor. Greek courts gave great weight to independent eyewitness reports, which is why Euphiletus rounded up his neighbors as he went home.

An adulteress could expect to be divorced, but it would have been illegal to kill her since she is not considered responsible for the adultery. Euphiletus has acted within the letter of the law, and the real criminal is dead.

Janet on query letters

My agent Janet Reid was interviewed on the BBC on the subject of query letters. Here's the interview:

The part I enjoyed most was Janet doing a little expectation setting for my fellow author Dan Krokos. Not that Dan has a lot to live up to now or anything (evil laughter in background). I haven't read his book yet, but I will when it's out, which will be some time after he's beaten me in a threatened trivia contest at Bouchercon.

I've preset some posts

I've preset some posts to appear while I'm off lounging about a tropical island. Since my last attempt at doing this resulted in the post order getting jumbled, I'll be interested to see if it works this time.

I promise to read any and all comments when I'm back in a week and a bit!

Draco was so draconian

It's not everyone who gets their name turned into a word which survives for more than 2,600 years. It takes a special sort of person.

The first person to codify the laws of Athens was Draco, who in the generation before Solon, some time around 620BC, was asked to bring together all the traditional laws of Athens to a consistent standard.

Judgements up to that time had been relatively arbitrary (which is why Draco was asked to standardise), so Draco had a wide range of precedents from which to prescribe penalties. He consistently chose the most...draconian.

Someone asked Draco why the penalty for even the slightest crime, even stealing a cabbage, was death. "Small crimes deserve death," he replied, "And I have no greater punishment for the larger crimes."

"Those laws were written not with ink, but in blood," the orator Demades said 300 years later. Demades would probably be forgotten today if he hadn't uttered those immortal words. What is less known about Demades is he was speaking in approval.

One of the first things Solon did when he was asked to write his constitution in 590 was to remove all of Draco's laws except for the homicide law. Which did not stop Athenians from quoting Draco in court when it suited them. There was one case in the 4th century BC in which a defendant for murder used Draco's view on adultery as part of his defense.

Draco was however revolutionary in one way: he introduced the concept of intent to commit a crime, in this instance murder. Draco said homicide could be by intent, or by accident or in self-defense, which today we would call manslaughter. The concept of intent lives today in the legal requirement to prove mens rea, the intent to commit the crime with which you are charged.


Neither the Greeks nor, as far as I'm aware, any of the ancient people had anything like racism as we know it today, which didn't stop neighbours killing each other from time to time, but they never did it based on colour of skin. You had to be a Hellene to contest the Olympics, but that's only because you needed to be a member of the club. Romans didn't get to join either (unless you were an Emperor capable of executing the Judges of the Games, in which case they might see things your way). In fact of all the other peoples of the word, the Greeks had an especial respect for the Egyptians, in cause of their ancient culture.

To the Greeks, if you came from Africa, then you were either an Egyptian, or an Aethiopian. Aethiopian was their catch-all term for an African.

You might be surprised to hear there were Africans in the Greek lands. Here's an example:

Ethiopian slave boy in Classical Greece
I'm afraid it's not very clear from my poor photography, but this exhibit from the British Museum shows a boy, almost certainly a slave, holding a boot, and the features are African. (The funny shape at his back is a bird). The odds are very good this boy was passed along in the slave markets until he found himself working in Athens.

For some reason I don't understand, the Aethiopians had been an enemy of Hellas stretching back to the Trojan War. The bards sang in the great epic Aethiopis that Memnon, the hero-king of Aethiopia, brought a contingent to fight for the Trojans. Memnon slew Antilochus and was such a warrior that no one could touch him until he was brought down by Achilles himself. Memnon's skill and courage was so great that Zeus granted him immortality. The Greeks had no problem with someone of dark skin being beloved of the Gods and a hero.

Unfortunately Aethiopis has been lost, but it's part of the Trojan cycle and if we had it, it would almost certainly put some of the Iliad in a different light.

More recently, Herodotus recorded that a band of Aethiopians fought for the Great King of Persia when he invaded Hellas. Here's a good example of that:

Ethiopian warrior in Persian army
This is an Aethiopian warrior in the army of Xerxes. You can tell because he's wearing trousers, very much Persian dress. The vase is dated 460-440BC, twenty or so years after the invasion.

Western Digital MyBook Sucks

I am not normally a negative person, so when I say that the Western Digital MyBook network storage system is a revolting piece of vile, slimy bat poo with no redeeming features, you should take it to mean this is a product you wish to avoid.

The cause of my strong emotion is that I bought one of these things a year ago to use for network backup storage and, while it is certainly true that they lied when they said the box has gigabit network connectivitity -- you could inscribe cuneiform on a clay tablet faster than this thing writes -- it did actually manage to accept backups.

Until a couple of weeks ago, when it stopped working, which I didn't notice until yesterday because I don't check backups every day.

I have just spent the last 24 hours struggling to work out what's wrong. With mere days before I go on hols, and then disappear for three weeks leaving my wife to look after the girls, there are better things I could have spent my time doing, but coming from my background I am most unwilling to leave any computer without a working backup system.

As near as I can tell, either the processor or the network circuitry, which has always been marginal, has degraded to the point it's physically incapable of keeping up with the data flow, at which point the controlling software spuriously reports the disk is full, which causes the backup software to bomb out.

So the odds are pretty good that some time tomorrow I'll be buying a new network storage system, and it won't be Western Digital.

3 sleeps until Gary et familia goes on holiday

We're going to be spending a week in the Whitsunday Islands of the Great Barrier Reef before I head off to the US. There's little or no internet where we'll be, so don't be surprised if I disappear for a while. Still a couple of days to go before I disappear, but I'll probably forget to post anything in the crisis of packing so this is the only notice.

A few days after I'm back, I get on a big plane and fly Sydney to Los Angeles to Chicago to Indianapolis without a break. I can't tell you how much I am not looking forward to spending 26+ hours traveling. The only compensation is that the joy of meeting the people at the other end exceeds the pain of the flights.

The world's longest family tree

I was fascinated to see the world's longest family tree has been updated. The tree is the descendants of Confucius. Since Confucius died about 10 years before Socrates was born, this is an incredibly long time ago, almost 2,500 years. There's nothing in the western world to match it. As far as I'm aware the oldest tree in the west is for the intimately connected European royal families, who can be traced back to the Dark Ages but no further. I'm pretty sure there's no Roman whose descendants can be traced, and certainly no Greek. The reason the Confucius tree is known is his descendants were honoured and ennobled by successive generations of Emperors for so long that there are good records.

Of course, after 83 generations the amount of Confucius DNA in each of those people is a tiny fraction: 1 part in 283 in fact. Since the number of base pairs in human DNA is "only" about 3 billion, which is a mere 232, that means the amount of surviving Confucius DNA is effectively zero for all but those of direct male lineage. They of course will have the same Y chromosome.

The King's Messengers

Here's an excerpt from Herodotus, Book 8, section 98. Xerxes, the Great King of Persia has just been beaten at the Battle of Salamis and wants to call home...

"...Xerxes dispatched a courier to Persia with the news of his defeat. No mortal thing travels faster than these Persian couriers. The whole idea is a Persian invention, and works like this: riders are stationed along the road, equal in number to the number of days the journey takes - a man and a horse for each day. Nothing stops these couriers from covering their allotted stage in the quickest possible time - neither snow, rain, heat, nor darkness. The first, at the end of his stage, passes his dispatch to the second, the second to the third, and so on down the line, as in the Greek torch race which is held in honour of Hephaestus. The Persian word for this form of post is aggareion."

Which today we would translate as the King's Messengers. The Great Kings used this system to manage their empire, the largest the world had yet seen. A road system maintained at state expense ensured the couriers could get from one end of the empire to the other very quickly, the most famous route being the Royal Road, which stretched from the capital Susa, in what is now Iran, to Ephesus on the west coast of what is now Turkey. (Actually the Royal Road stopped at Sardis, but Ephesus was only a short extra hop).

If you think of the road system as the backbone, the King's Messengers as the network transport layer, the dispatches as data packets, and the staging posts as routers, then the Persian system is like a very early, very manual version of the internet.

US readers might have noticed something familiar in the quote from Herodotus. The unofficial motto of the US Postal Service is Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds. Compare it to: Nothing stops these couriers from covering their allotted stage in the quickest possible time - neither snow, rain, heat, nor darkness.

That's right. The US postal creed comes direct from this verse of Herodotus.

In praise of Editor Kathleen

Things are different when you have a publisher. You're not on your own any more, you're part of a team, and other members of the team have more skills than you do when it comes to certain aspects of producing a book.

In fact, you have only one skill: writing. A most important skill! There are maybe 90,000 words in your book, those words are what got you here in the first place, and if the words don't work then you and your team are doomed. But being able to write does not make you an expert on sales, or marketing or production, or...graphic design.

The basic rule of thumb is, the writer owns the words. The publisher owns everything else, in particular, the cover and the title. I've read of some authors feeling excluded by that, but not me.

Just because we own different bits of the job doesn't mean we shouldn't listen to each other. Editor Kathleen writes me a lovely editorial letter with suggestions for making the book better; always suggestions and always with the rider that what I do is up to me, because I own this bit. I could choose to ignore everything she says, but since I'm not insane I listen to an expert and behold, the book gets better (in particular a character list which I would never have written if Kathleen hadn't encouraged me, but which I slaved over and now am very proud of).

The reverse is happening too. I'm having a magical experience with Kathleen and Minotaur on the cover. They own this bit, but they've been fantastic about asking my opinion. There's a clause in the contract which says they should consult, but Kathleen's gone so far above and beyond consultation that I very much feel it's a joint effort.

Right at the start Kathleen asked if I had a vision in mind for the cover. She sent me some samples (actually entire books!) to prompt ideas. I scanned a cover of a book I had and sent it to her, saying, "Something like this?" Kathleen could very reasonably have said it wouldn't work (in her usual polite way), but she didn't. Instead she ran with my thought and suggested a variation. We talked it back and forth. More variations. She talked it over with others inside Minotaur, particularly her boss, Keith. The vision simplified, but it's still the vision.

So it's our combined concept that she's taking to the intriguingly named Jacket Meeting in the future. (I wonder how many people have used the Straitjacket joke I instantly thought of when I first heard the name of that meeting?) At which point the sales and marketing people could replace our lovingly wrought vision with something completely different, because they have to sell this thing and their opinion matters a lot. But that's not the point; the point is it's a team effort.

Danielle and Gregory, and Monica

My wife and I do ice dancing for enjoyment and exercise. We're hopeless, but we have fun. Our coach is Monica McDonald. Monica competed in the 1988 Olympics and 7 World Championships, and is now a professional coach and international judge, but no doubt the highlight of her career has been teaching me to skate.

Monica also happens to coach the Australian champions: Danielle O'Brien and Gregory Merriman. One of their fans, completely unknown to them, has put together a montage of their performances set to music. Whoever did this has done an amazing job. Here it is.

Danielle by the way is excited at my book series and wants me to write a murder mystery on ice. She's suggested a couple of ways to kill a skater and I've told her if I ever write it, she'll be the victim.

Monica if anything is even more excited about my books than I am. She wants me to do an ice skating murder too but wants the body concealed underneath the rink ice, which would be tricky unless you sliced the body very thin. I like the idea, there's some great imagery, but I've no idea what the motive would be for such a bizarre disposal.

The pankration

It's a little known fact that the Greeks had a martial art: the pankration.

In fact there were three. Boxing and wrestling are well known to this day, but they were child's play compared to the pankration.

I don't suggest you try playing this at home kids, but here are the complete rules for a pankration contest:

1. No biting.
2. No gouging eyes.
3. You can surrender by raising your arm.
4. If you're unconscious or dead, you lose.

Notice there are no rules against breaking bones, grabbing and twisting where it hurts most, or using choke holds. Two referees circled the contestants with sticks or short whips and beat anyone who broke even these simple rules. In the picture you can see the referees to the outside, one wielding a whip; the contestant on the ground has raised his arm in defeat.

There is a modern martial art movement which calls itself pankration, but needless to say they don't fight according to the ancient rules. It would be grossly illegal!

Choke holds seem to have been a popular way of winning, hence the rule that if someone loses consciousness or dies then it's game over. I'm not kidding about the death part. People regularly died at Olympic level. So regularly that contestants were issued a blanket pardon for murder before the Games began.

One man called Arrhachion won the pankration at three Olympiads in succession! This means Arrhachion was not someone you would wish to annoy. Arrhachion in an important way embodied a Greek ideal which is largely lost to modern society, though some people still naturally retain it, and this is the importance above all else of achieving excellence. Not the pursuit of excellence, but excellence. There are athletes and academics today who, if they come second in a contest, turn around and say, "I lost." Any Classical Greek would have understood that and agreed wholeheartedly. At the ancient Olympics the only prize was for coming first; none of this bronze and silver rubbish. Likewise there was a first prize in choral and dramatic contests and that was it.

Here is how Arrhachion won his third Olympic crown. Keep in mind as you read this, Arrhachion knew what he was doing, and could have raised his arm at any time. We take up the fight with our hero in big trouble:
Arrhachion’s opponent, having already a grip around his waist, thought to kill him and put an arm around his neck to choke off his breath. At the same time he slipped his legs through Arrhachion’s groin and wound his feet inside Arrhachion’s knees, pulling back until the sleep of death began to creep over Arrhachion’s senses.

But Arrhachion was not done yet, for as his opponent began to relax the pressure of his legs, Arrhachion kicked away his own right foot and fell heavily to the left, holding his opponent at the groin with his left knee still holding his opponent’s foot firmly. So violent was the fall that the opponent’s left ankle was wrenched from his socket. The man strangling Arrhachion … signaled with his hand that he gave up.

Thus Arrhachion became a three-time Olympic victor at the moment of his death. His corpse … received the victory crown.

The Artemision of Ephesus

The Temple of Artemis in Ephesus, also called the Artemision, was among the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.  This is a model from the Miniature Park in Istanbul.  It's probably fairly accurate, except the real thing would have been painted in bright colors.  It was built entirely in marble, except for the roof.  Back in Athens every temple was still wooden, including the columns, so the Artemision was an engineering marvel for its day.

The cult statue of the Goddess was particularly interesting.  I could describe her, but why bother when Nicolaos can do it for me.  Nico passes through Ephesus in my second book, and he could hardly miss a tour of the famous temple.  Here are Nico and Diotima inside:
We stopped at an immense red curtain, hung from the ceiling.  It was drawn up, great folds of material spilling over the ends.  The drawn curtain revealed the statue of the Goddess.  Artemis stood high and proud, her arms outstretched like a supplicant, or a mother welcoming her children.  Her chest was covered with breasts, not merely the standard two, but more than I could count at a glance, all hard and full of milk.

I admired the Goddess for some time while Diotima waited patiently beside me.  I cleared my throat.  “I take it we are not viewing Artemis here in her guise as the Huntress?”

“Hardly,” Diotima murmured. 

In Athens, Diotima was a priestess at the temple of Artemis Agrotera, which is to say, Artemis of the Hunt.  There the Goddess is depicted as a fit young maiden armed with bow, accompanied by a deer as she hunts through the forest.  The temple of Artemis Agrotera lies at the spot where Artemis first hunted when she came to Athens from the island of Delos.

“The Artemis of Ephesus is a Mother Goddess, and a Goddess of Fertility,” Diotima lectured.

“You don’t say,” I muttered, counting the breasts.  “Twenty-one, twenty-two...”

Diotima glared.  “Keep it pious, Nicolaos.  Just because the Goddess appears to these people as the Mother is no reason she can’t transform for your benefit to something more likely to put an arrow through you.  She’s still the same person, you know.  The Gods appear to us in many forms but they’re each a single deity within.”

I commented, “The cult statue looks a little old.”  The stone and wood was stained and cracked and aged, despite their efforts to keep it pristine.  The style was stiff and, well, wooden; noticeably of a period long, long ago.

“This statue of the Goddess was dedicated by the Amazons.”

“What, as in Troy?”

“Oh yes.  The Amazons worshiped Artemis.  They came here to the Artemision several times, the first during their war against King Theseus of Athens, and that was a generation before the war against the Trojans.”

I studied the Goddess in new appreciation.  “This place is that old?”

“Older.  The Artemision was built by the demigod Ephesos, who founded the city under the protection of the Goddess.  Since that day, it's been the greatest ill-deed to lay a hand against anyone who claims protection of the temple.  The whole civilized world knows of the sanctuary of the Artemision.”

“I didn’t.”

“I said ‘civilized’.” 

Here is Artemis of Ephesus:

Diotima has her facts right (as usual), but for some slight mangles caused by the Greeks not knowing their past as well as we know it today.  There was a temple on the site of the Artemision dating back at least to the bronze age, no doubt rebuilt many times.  The Amazons were indeed believed to have worshipped there before the fall of Troy.

The curtain placement before the cult statue is correct, btw.  Pausanias, who saw it, says: At the temple of Zeus in Olympia...the curtain is not drawn upwards to the roof as is that in the temple of Artemis at Ephesos...  Alright, I'm showing off by mentioning it, but I was rather pleased with myself for spotting the detail.

The Artemision was indeed a declared sanctuary, of such importance that even the Great King of the Persians respected it.  Xerxes burnt a number of Greek temples in Asia, but he not only spared the Artemision, he ordered the sanctuary observed by his own men.  The belief in the sanctuary was so strong that at one point duing a siege the Ephesians tried to extend it by chaining the city to the temple.  Herodotus says:

The first Greeks that King Croesus of Lydia attacked were the Ephesians. These, besieged by him, dedicated their city to Artemis; they did this by attaching a rope to the city wall from the temple of the goddess, which stood seven stades away from the ancient city which was then besieged.

The version of the temple Nico and Diotima see is about 90 years old and in fact the rich Ephesians are still working on finishing touches.  A new cult statue might have been made at that date, which would have been based on the one before it.  Diotima and Nico appear to be looking at the original. 
The Artemision is one of the temples associated with sacred prostitution by both Pausanias and the Bible.  The claim is highly contentious to this day, and for my money, it's wrong.  Sacred prostitution is a subject on which I plan to write in the future because, although I think the claim is false for Ephesus, there are other places around the ancient world where it's probably true.

A more probable claim, IMHO, is that the Artemision was served by eunuch-priests or eunuch servants of some form.  Why is it more probable?  Because although the Greeks were not keen on eunuchy, the Asian side of the Aegean Sea was, and the province of Ionia, in which Ephesus lies, is in Asia Minor with a large non-Hellene population.  The Artemision was there well before the Greeks were, so a hang over from the past is viable.  Eunuch priests are also better documented than temple prostitutes.  Strabo says point blank the eunuchs were there and they were called the megabyzoi.

The Artemision had a hard time staying upright.  The temple Nico and Diotima see was burnt down 100 years later by a man who did it on purpose so he'd be remembered forever.  The Ephesians tortured him to death and didn't write down his name.  Unfortunately some fool recorded it later, but I'm not going to pass it on.

The arson is said to have happened the same night Alexander the Great was born, but this is doubtful considering how vague the calendars were.  The temple was rebuilt and then destroyed again by Goth raiders.  The next version survived until it was torn apart for the last time by a Christian mob and the stones used for other buildings, including apparently the church of Saint Sophia in Istanbul. Someone has piled some of the remaining rubble one bit on top of another to create a single, makeshift, forlorn column where one of the wonders of the ancient world once stood.

I'll leave the last word for Antipater, who created the list of the Seven Wonders:
I have set eyes on the wall of lofty Babylon on which is a road for chariots, and the statue of Zeus by the Alpheus, and the hanging gardens, and the colossus of the Sun, and the huge labour of the high pyramids, and the vast tomb of Mausolus; but when I saw the house of Artemis that mounted to the clouds, those other marvels lost their brilliancy, and I said, 'Lo, apart from Olympus, the Sun never looked on aught so grand.