A paraplegic child survived to adulthood, 4,000 years ago!

The Canberra Times has a fascinating article about researchers from the Australian National University finding in Vietnam the 4,000 year old skeleton of a man who was a paraplegic, which they can tell because the vertebrae are fused.

The amazing thing is the problem must have been obvious even as a child, yet he lived to be about 25. That's an unbelievable record. Everything we know indicates life was pretty grim back then, so this is a real feel good story.

The article speculates the man might have had some special skill the community needed, but that doesn't explain how he survived childhood. It seems hard to believe struggling prehistoric communities were going to fight to keep everyone alive. Maybe he had very special parents, either by position or compassion? Or maybe, just as some religions today hold that children born at certain times are especially blessed or chosen, this child fluked a birth which guaranteed he'd be cared for?

Writing and Music

Today's post comes courtesy of a suggestion by Carrie, who has the good taste to like Dead Can Dance.

I do most of my writing while listening to music, usually with headphones on so as not to irritate the rest of the universe (and to block it out).

The good thing about music is it stops me from procrastinating elsewhere. At least, that's the theory; sometimes we have system failure, but mostly it works.

If the room's silent and I'm tapping away, I might start wondering what people are saying on twitter and flip over there for a few minutes, or an hour, or two. Music locks up the Procrastination Region of my brain, which appears to constitute approx. 80% of my neurons, and keeps me typing in the right window.

My music selection is quite eclectic and changes daily. The one thing I can guarantee is I never listen to classical music while writing, which isn't to say I don't like classical. We have season tickets for the Brandenburg Orchestra. But classical doesn't have the same locking effect on the Procrastination Region.

There are core bands who always get slots. Beatles, Pink Floyd, Cocteau Twins, Dead Can Dance, Fleetwood Mac, Enya, Loreena McKennitt.

I'm listening to fairly standard popular rock, with a heavy weighting towards Celtic/Folk and Etherial Darkwave.

Then there are a large number of bands who rotate through. Right now I have Ace of Bass, Toto, Alan Parsons Project, Alannah Myles, T'Pau, Extreme, Peter Gabriel, B52's, Pretenders, Heart, Blondie, Lily Allen, Boney M, The Veronicas, Sugababes, Miranda Sex Garden (mediaeval & darkwave), Garbage (band name, not my evaluation), Rogue Traders, Merril Bainbridge, Kevin Rudolf, Jackson Browne, Gwen Stefani, T-Rex, ELO, Cranberries, Ultravox, Visage, The Seekers, Flash and the Pan, Big Audio Dynamite, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Heather Nova, Tory Amos.

Sometimes the song will match beautifully. Once, while editing over and over a paragraph I just couldn't get right, and getting very frustrated with it, Fairground Attraction came on, singing, "It's got to beeee...P_E_R_F_E_C_T!" Thanks for the help, guys.

So the good news is music keeps me on the job. The bad news is, it affects the rhythm of what I'm writing. I know you know all good writing has a rhythm, and unlike music the rhythm of writing isn't constant. If I'm not careful, I end up writing a story that bounces in 4/4.

I fix that by playing different music for different scene types. It works!

Action scenes get heavy rock music. Especially fights.

Description is written to Celtic, Folk, and Darkwave. Description must not be written to rock or pop.

Dialogue gets either Celtic, Folk, Etherial Darkwave, or...silence. Every character speaks with his or her own rhythm and own speech patterns. It's really important I concentrate on a character's speech until I have them dialled in. The quieter it is, the more quickly I can hear them.

When Nico's thinking to himself, acting on his own, or arguing with Diotima, he gets Pop/Rock. The fact that Nico thinks to pop music is probably sad, but that's how it is. He's frequently surrounded by people with brains the size of a planet, such as his brother Socrates, his girlfriend Diotima and his boss Pericles, so a little light relief for his own brain cells doesn't hurt.

I can sing along and write at the same time. This is because my mouth is rarely connected to my brain.

Weirdly, I've discovered many normal readers can't hear the rhythm in a novel, but they respond to it.

FYI, this post was written to Rivers of Babylon (Boney M), Golden Brown (The Stranglers), Ebony Eyes (Bob Welch), Me Myself I (Joan Armatrading), Don't Call Me Baby (Madison Avenue), Rapture (Blondie), Funky Town (Boney M), Sunday Girl (Blondie), Midsummer Night Blues (Waldeck - great Austrian twenties band), Not Fair (Lily Allen - this song's hilarious), Lady Madonna (Beatles), She Came From Planet Claire (B52's), Another Day (McCartney), Poles Apart (Pink Floyd).

Setting a new standard in archaeological announcements

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi appears to have announced the discovery of 30 Phoenician tombs dated circa 300BC on his personal estate in Sardinia.

This would be interesting stuff under any circumstances, but what makes it really interesting is Berlusconi is said to have made the announcement while in bed with a hooker. They do things differently in Italy.

I'm looking forward to seeing what the next dig to make a major discovery can do to top this for a press release.

Dialogue: life rarely imitates art

If you ever listened carefully to people talking in real life, you know real people almost never speak as well as the fake people in books.

Real people ummmm, and errrrr, and repeat themselves constantly. They talk around themselves, say inconsequential things, break in on their own lines of thought. It's a mess.

Book dialogue, even when it's colloquial, is always more formal, grammatically better, and doesn't say the same thing three times in four sentences.

But every now and then, I hear something that would make perfect book dialogue. Today at my local coffee shop, a girl in her early twenties was making the coffee. When a waitress called the coffee server Jenny, the guy behind me, obviously a regular and about the same age as the girl, started the following conversation:

Guy: “Jenny. Is that your name? I didn’t know.”
Girl: “Yes, it is. You only had to ask.”
Guy: “I couldn’t, you make me nervous.”
Girl: “Oh! Well you make me nervous too. We better get married then.”
Guy: “Yes, and have lots of nervous children.”

Neither of them missed a beat. I swear it was exactly as I wrote it. You know this little dialogue is going into one of my books, don't you? I would have told them that, except at this stage the girl making the coffee had turned a bright, bright red.

I'll update you on any impending nuptials.

Editor and Agent Blogs

ScaryAzeri asked about interesting blogs for new writers. There are so many it's impossible to list them all. I have well over a hundred blogs listed in Google Reader, and most of them are about writing, or writers, or history, or archaeology, or science. I'm going to restrict my list to the blogs I know of that are mandatory reading for someone who wants to sell their writing.

I have to admit, I did not read a single one of these until I had written three books, at which point I thought maybe I should work out how to sell one of them. This list is hardly exhaustive, but if you start from here and follow the cascade of links you will (a) learn everything you need to know about submitting your work, and (b) waste the rest of your life reading blogs.

Janet Reid. My own agent, and the source of all that is wise and good in publishing. Seriously. If she can sell me, she can sell anything. Janet's blog has piles of useful advice, all written in her own, unique style (you'll find out when you read it).

Miss Snark. A famous and very anonymous literary agent tells the truth about publishing. Her blog is now retired but remains a deep pool of information. Read it. Then you too can play the guessing game called Who-Is-Miss-Snark.

Rachelle Gardner. Rachelle's an agent working predominantly with Christian books, but even if that's not your thing, you shouldn't let it stop you reading her very sensible and thoughtful advice.

Nathan Bransford. An agent at Curtis Brown. Hugely popular with interesting things to say.

Agent Kristin. Another agent saying sensible, useful things!

Are you spotting a trend here? Agents are your friends when it comes to learning about how to deliver something they can sell.

Editorial Ass. That's Ass as in Assistant. Join the gentle world of Moonrat and learn what happens inside a publishing house, and too applaud the many victories of the loyal Mischief.

Editorial Anonymous. A children's book editor who can teach you a great deal about publishing.

Pimp My Novel. The view from the sales department.

Preditors & Editors. The site for checking out that agent who just offered to represent you.

Writer Beware. Full of excellent general advice about how to avoid being scammed.

I know I've missed many great sites. The floor is now open for suggestions. Remember, the idea is sites that a beginning writer might find useful.

You can judge a book by it's cover

You know how they say you can't judge a book from its cover? It's not true, because they always put the author's name on the front, and then you know if it's going to be good.

That's from my seven year old daughter, who said it to me last night as we were settling down to read. Already by the age of seven, she's worked out on her own that if the book's written by someone she's liked before, then she's Safe, but if it's by someone she hasn't heard of then it's a Risk.

This is not a comforting thought for a debut author, such as, for example, her Daddy.

The book we held at the time had the magic name Linda Chapman on the front (of Unicorn and Stardust fame). My girls have been major contributors to Linda Chapman's retirement plan. They have a simple strategy. When they read a book they like they consume every other book by the same author with the sort of rapaciousness normally associated with plagues of locusts. When that author's been picked clean (and enriched, because we buy them all new) they move on to the next. The other huge winners in this game have been Daisy Meadows, who is code for Narinder Dhami, Sue Bentley, Linda Chapman (again!), and Sue Mongredien, and of course Enid Blyton.

So if you're a children's writer here's a winning strategy for you: write something kids like, and then don't stop.

It interests me that all these books seem to get dumped on by adult experts on a fairly regular basis, but that's not stopping them selling in lots of millions.

Olympia, Maps and Mules

I said at the end of the last post that sometimes gems fall out of the most obscure research. I had an example of that yesterday.

I've been working out my map of Olympia for the target date. In doing the map I came across a delightful little factoid which has given me a precise method for a murder. No, I'm not going to tell you what it is. You'll have to wait for the book.

I did the map by taking the very good one on Wikipedia and deleting everything later than 460. Olympia maps almost always date to Roman Empire times. I had to remove the Roman and Hellenistic bits, which was easy, and then for each Classical building get its construction date and remove anything not up yet, which was a surprising number. It was a whole lot easier than doing the same thing for the Athenian Agora, which I had to do a few years ago and was a hellish exercise.

I now have something which I think is probably quite accurate for my date.

The precise location of the hippodrome (horse racing) is lost because the hippodrome was washed away in mediaeval times, but the general location is known so there are no problems.

You probably know the ancient Olympics included chariot races, but did you know there were 14 Olympiads in which they had mule racing? Two mules were hitched to a small chariot and off they went.

One of those Olympiads was the 80th. I absolutely promise you, there's going to be an Olympic mule race in this book.

And no, if you're trying to connect the two subjects of this post, no one is going to be trampled to death by stampeding mules.

I know the ancient sports don't always translate well, but really, we need mule racing in the modern Games. The thought of seeing all those mules dressed in their national colours, jostling at the start line, eager to bolt at the sound of the gun, the steely-eyed drivers in their small chariots gripping the reins...frankly, it'd be a highlight and totally in line with the spirit of the Games. Some things just get better with age.

Alexander I of Macedon at the Olympics & the joy of book research

I want to give you, if I can, an idea of what book research feels like by describing what happened when I went after one particular detail. You can see the sort of back-and-forth reasoning needed to tease out facts from 2,500 years ago.

So, I am writing a mystery set at the Olympics of 460BC, which is the 80th Olympiad. Obviously I want to know who was at the for-real historical event. I start searching, and like any normal human being I begin with Google.

One name hits me at once: King Alexander I of Macedon. Numerous web sites and a popular article from Tufts University all say he competed in the stadion (sprint) event in 460BC. The popular article is by Dr. Evangeline D. Harris Stefanakis, et al. Tufts University, Spring 2004.

(In what follows I'm going to leave off the BC part of the dates, which is common practice when everything is BC. Just remember all the dates are running backwards, so 500 comes before 460.)

Alexander I is not the Alexander the Great (he was Alexander III), but still, this has got to be a good character. It's not every day you can get Macedonian royalty into a story.

I thought I had it nailed and I was feeling so good that when I saw Wikipedia has Alexander at the Olympics of 504 or 500, I made a disparaging remark on twitter about how they got their dates wrong.

Then the highly knowledgable Robert Greaves pointed out, very politely, that Wikipedia is more likely to be correct than the 460 date, because Alexander I began his rule in the 490s, and for once Wikipedia is referencing a respectable book. If so, I can't have him as a character in 460.

I check. The references are A History of Macedonia by Hammond & Griffith, and Thucydides and Pindar: Historical Narrative and the World of Epinikian Poetry by Simon Hornblower. The titles aren't exactly catchy, but these are very respected scholars. Uh oh. But those 500 dates don't look particularly firm either, and what about the sites reporting a 460 date? Robert and I begin discussing what was the likely real date for Alexander. The question has switched from who was there in 460, to when was Alexander at the Olympics? At this point the awesomely knowledgable N.S. Gill joins the hunt. Three people, at least two of whom are really good at researching this sort of thing, were now working their sources. I am enormously lucky to know people like this!

The ensuing conversation was fascinating, fun, and very long, so skipping the blow by blow account, here is what we dredged up between us:

First, the primary sources, which is to say, stuff written at or very close to the time. There are only two documents that refer to Alexander competing at the Olympics: Herodotus and a fragment of a poem from the famous poet Pindar.

The story from Herodotus appears right in the middle of him relating the Persian Wars. This is what he says, from the Penguin edition:

[The Greek nationality of the Macedonian kings] was recognised by the managers of the Olympic Games, on the occasion when Alexander wished to compete and his Greek competitors tried to exclude him on the ground that foreigners were not allowed to take part. Alexander however proved his Argive descent, and so was accepted as a Greek and allowed to enter for the foot-race. He came in equal first.

That's it. No hint of when this happened.

The Pindar fragment doesn't help much either. Most scholars have it dated to some time in the 450s. You would expect Pindar to have written shortly after the event. That explains why some people are giving 460. But The Greek World 479-323 by Simon Hornblower dates Pindar's poem to the 490s, not 450s! If the 490 date is correct then Alexander competing shortly before or after his coronation looks very reasonable.

There is one other document that might help: a chronology written by a guy called Eusebius. Eusebius lived much later but wrote chronologies for all sorts of things, and one of them was a "complete" list of winners of the Olympic stadion event. He was working off source documents now lost to us. Perfect! Robert and I both track down copies of Eusebius.

Guess what? Alexander does not appear on any of them at any date.

Time to give up and open a vein? Maybe not. This doesn't necessarily mean Alex wasn't there, because Herodotus says he came equal first, which means by normal practice there would have been a run-off. Maybe he lost the run-off, in which case he would not have appeared in Eusebius' victor list. We haven't progressed at all.

Britannica has Alexander on the throne by 500. Most other sources give some time in the 490s. Either way, it looks like the 460 date is dead because Alexander would have been way too old. Eusebius does give 44 years as the reign of Alexander. If Eusebius has it right, which he probably does, then Alex must have died in the 440s. Assuming the coronation date is good, of course. No one's too sure about it either, but it's unlikely to be later than 490 because he was a major player by the time of the Persian Wars, which are coming ten years later.

The dates in Wikipedia also look dodgy now, because Alexander would have been doing this for political reasons. The question of whether Macedonia was Greek was a hot topic then, as it still is today, and by entering for the Olympics Alexander was forcing the issue for the royal family at least. He didn't really need to do this when he was a princeling. Also, politically, it seems hard to believe the Greeks were going to admit a Macedonian at such an early date. Macedonians were considered barbarians.

Another source dates Alexander to the Olympics of 478. Why 478? Because 478 was the first Olympics after the Greeks had beaten off the Persian invasion, and Hellene patriotism was running high. Alexander had been one of the defenders of Greece. If a Macedonian king was going to be accepted as a Hellene then 478 was the first time there was sufficient good will to let him in.

So now we have dates of 504, 500, 478 and 460, and of these, the most popularly quoted is 460, the one mostly likely wrong.

Another factor is, the controversial start date of 776 for the Olympics could be causing the trouble, because the Greeks always used Olympiad numbers, not year numbers. Any evidence based on hard year numbers can conflict with Olympiad numbers, which always begin from the dubious 776. There is even a book about this problem: Discrepencies In Olympiad Dating And Chronological Problems by Shaw. In it is this quote: "The years from the accession of Alexander I to Alexander IV is 167 in Eusebius' Chronicle but 120 in Porphyry's version..." Wonderful...what's a 47 year difference between friends? This is the sort of thing that can make you misplace someone by a couple of Olympiads.

Notice the more you check the facts, the more questionable they became. This is a common problem for anyone trying to get precision for that long ago.

Both Robert and N.S. Gill found references to work by Eugene Borza, a highly respected scholar. In In The Shadow Of Olympus, Borza spends a few pages trying to solve the puzzle. He points out, very sensibly, that the whole question hangs on Alexander's age. After considering the pros and cons he comes up with a surprising conclusion: there is no possible combination of age, coronation, politics and Olympiad which works. Borza thinks both Herodotus' story and Pindar's poem are sourced from PR originating with Alexander himself. "They should be discarded both because they are propoganda and because they invite suspicion... Herodotus transmitted some perfectly acceptable historical material concerning the activity of Alexander I during the Persian Wars, but ... his participation at the Olympic Games, and the Hellenic lineage of his family are not among them."

In other words, it never happened.

We now have the options 504, 500, 478, 460, and never.

What's a poor mystery writer to do? Fortunately, I don't need to work out exactly when Alexander was there, I only need to know whether 460 is viable. It probably isn't. I can cross Alexander off my list, unless I really want him as a character and I'm prepared to defend the age problem.

So that's one detail resolved. Total time spent on this was a couple of hours. I estimate there are about 100 details like this in each book. Fortunately they're not all as difficult as this one, but some are.

It might seem like a lot of work for not a lot of reward, but you never know what you're going to find, and sometimes real gems fall out when you least expect, little factoids that turn into major clues.

Naming Classical Greek characters for a modern world

I've been working on the characters for my third book, which raises the interesting problem of how I name them.

About 70% of my characters were real, historical people. I don't get a choice on their names.

The remaining 30% present me with a fun challenge. I expect every writer will tell you names matter a lot. If the name doesn't feel right then the character won't gel for you. In addition I have the problem of having to pick valid Classical Greek names that also sound right and match the character for a modern English reader.

After some hits and misses I've developed a set of basic rules:
  1. I only pick names which were definitely in use. This means trawling books of inscriptions and lists of people and reading classics. I've built an excellent collection of lists.

  2. Check the provenance. Just to make it more fun, there were names used in some regions of Greece which you would not have heard in other parts. Also fashions changed over time. I had to give up the name Alcmene for one character because it was the name of the mother of Heracles and out of fashion by Classical times.

  3. The name has to be readable! Some Greeks had unbelievably long names. Out they go. Of course if it was a real person I'm stuck, but even then there are ways around. The Greek habit of using nicknames comes to the rescue. For example, the famous General and arch-conservative Cimon named one of his sons Lacedaemonius. No, I don't want to read that mess of letters either. You won't have to, because I filter out such names.

  4. The name has to be pronouncable in English. A normal human has to be able to look at the spelling and say the name without effort. I'm sure you can read Diotima with ease. You may not sound like a Classical Greek when you do it (and nor do I), but you have a sound value that works.

  5. The name has to match the character. Of course. Just like any story.

  6. To the extent possible, the names should start with different letters, or at least with different prefixes. The Greek habit of using a quite small pool of words arranged in different combinations to create names makes this impossible to follow with any consistency, but I try. At least I don't have to deal with the Roman situation where multiple people in a family had exactly the same name. Fools, didn't they realise people would be writing stories about them?

  7. Check to make sure the name was not used by a real person who might become a character. The first name I chose for Diotima's Mum was Elpinice. I loved it, except it turned out that was the name of the wife of Callias, who most emphatically makes an appearance, and also the name of the wife of Thucydides. Bummer. I've lost a few names that way.

  8. Really important characters get a modern name. Nicolaos is the modern Nicholas. In fact the Nicolaos form is still used to this day, and the for-real St Nicolaos of later Christmas fame spelt his name this way. I have a (small) pool of Classical Greek names which are almost identical to modern English ones. I only dip into that pool on special occasions.

  9. Cameo characters and spear carriers (often literally) are allowed to break all these rules. So when you see someone with a long, unpronouncable name you know they're not important. Or they're about to die. Or they're a real person and I didn't have a choice. But you don't know which of those three is the case.