Tolkien's Secret Vice

The discussion about foreign languages has been very cool. Something's occurred to me which might interest those of you writing science fiction or fantasy with your own invented languages.

You probably already know, but in case you don't...Tolkien wrote an essay called A Secret Vice, in which he described how he went about inventing new languages. It's fascinating.

Here is a link to Tolkien's A Secret Vice on scribd. Highly recommended.

This post was brought to you to the tune of Band On The Run.

How do you handle foreign languages in your book?

In the comments on the last post, Matt raised the interesting question of handling foreign languages within a story.
A question for you, and anyone else who might have an opinion ... what's your stance on including other languages in the story? In your case, say it's someone speaking Aramaic or Egyptian. Would you have a note saying they were talking in the language or try to include some words?
In my case, Nico doesn't speak a word of Aramaic or Egyptian. Since I'm writing 1st person POV, the best Nico could say is he heard a pile of gobbledygook. If you can't speak a language, it's almost impossible to pick up words from a flowing conversation. As it happens, in the second book there's a scene on the docks of Ephesus in which Nico observes a crew of Egyptians on their boat. He can't follow their conversation but he can tell from the volume, the tone and the gesticulations that they're having chaos.

If I were writing 3rd person POV it would be a different matter. I could POV switch into the head of whoever understands the local language. Alas, I'll never have that luxury, but on the other hand, having the protagonist not understand what's going on has its potential for fun, too.

Nico will probably pick up some Persian over time - many Greeks did, especially Greeks working in trade or diplomacy...or investigation - and when he does Nico will simply say he's speaking Persian and I'll carry on typing English. I'm already writing English to represent what was "really" spoken in Attic Greek. I'm not sure I'd want to try adding Persian in some different way.

It's not quite the same thing, but I do edge a few Attic Greek terms into the stories. The Athenian parliament is the Ecclesia, a water jar is a hydria, the city mayor is the Eponymous Archon, a General is a strategos, a high class call girl is a hetaera. A little bit is great for atmosphere. Dates work too. I have a line I'm pleased with in the third book draft which says He died on the 15th of Hekatombeion. But in general, I'm working with modern, idiomatic English.

I'd love to hear how everyone else handles this.

So you want to write a Classical Greek historical novel

Merry asked how I go about doing my book research, especially finding the details of everyday life. So with my vast qualifications firmly in mind, here is the core of how I approach it. I'll do other posts about specific bits later.

I'm going to stick to book research for Classical Greece, because that's what I know, though I imagine the general principles apply to any period.

To start with, a decent knowledge of the histories written by Herodotus and Thucydides is mandatory. They're the Big Two, and if you don't know them then you are doomed. As I write this my copies are within arm's reach, on the shelf above my head.

Herodotus is a fine old chatterbox and reads more like a Boys' Own Adventure than the founding document of history and anthropology. Thucydides is full of geopolitics and is better than any modern thriller.

Both can be mined mercilessly for material. There's a novel on every page. For example you may have heard of a movie called 300. It comes from Herodotus, seriously mangled.

There are two modes of research: trawling and targeted search. Trawling means just wandering about reading stuff, with my radar open for anything I might be able to use.

Targeted search means what it says. The dog breed post was targeted search, but the post about Xanthippus' dog was me remembering something I'd read years ago on a trawl.

Even when doing targeted research it's important to keep your radar open for anything that might be useful. Here's an example I haven't used yet: the people of that time had steam baths using heated stones. I knew that long ago from a trawl. So I decided in my second book, Nico goes for a steam bath in Ephesus. Now I needed minute details of how a Classical Greek steam bath worked. That's targeted search. As I picked up details, I noticed Herodotus idly mentions in passing that the northern barbarian Scythians liked to throw hemp seeds on the hot stones of their baths. Ding! Ding! Ding!

If I ever get Nico up north to Scythia, you know he's going to be having a bath, don't you?

Targeted search often starts with Google but never ends there. Information on the web is, for the most part, highly unreliable. There are wonderful exceptions though. The Perseus database and NS Gill can both be assumed correct. Michael Lahanas is very reliable and a good source of references. But for the most part anything you read needs to be backed by a primary source, which means something written at the time or close thereto, or else by archaeological evidence.

It's surprising how much information about daily life comes from archaeology and not written history. For example, what if your character is putting out the garbage? (In which case the character is certainly a slave.) People at the time never thought to write down where they dumped their rubbish. Archaeologists find the middens so we know most people kept a dump out back. We get house plans, cooking utensils, boat design, weaponry, clothing pins, bronze mirrors, hair combs, assorted pottery, voting tokens, clothing styles, musical instruments, and all sorts of other stuff from archaeology. The Metropolitan, the Louvre, the British Museum and the National Archaeology Museum of Athens are your friends.

Besides the Big Two, there're a host of other contemporary writers with useful things to say. Who you read depends on what you're after, and you just have to know who's who. For anything to do with manly pursuits, Xenophon's your guy. For civic administration, you probably want Aristotle. Besides being hilarious, the comedies of Aristophanes are packed with details of everyday life, especially life's little irritations. For anything to do with the life of Socrates, you definitely want Plato.

Plato's a good example of how to read these sources. He wrote reams of profound thoughts about philosophy. It's all totally useless, to me at least. But he made his philosophy interesting by writing it as dialogues, and in the dialogues the historically real characters make off the cuff comments that are absolute gems to me. When I read Plato, I ignore the signal and read the side-channels.

In a book by Plato called Laches, a character called Lysimachus mentions to Socrates he was a friend of Socrates' father. For Plato, it was a mere opening ploy. But we know the real Lysimachus came from a political family which was closely associated with Pericles. Ding! Ding! Ding! I just found a for-real link between the family of Nico and the family of Pericles. When I discovered this, I wrote an imaginary character out of the book and wrote in the for-real Lysimachus, to give me an historically accurate personal connection.

And that's fundamentally it. The basic rule is: read, keep your radar on, and connect.

I certainly haven't hit every useful text in this post. I'd be interested to know if anyone has other suggestions?

Gary's utter lack of qualifications

Let me state my qualifications for writing historical novels: none. Zero. Nihil.

I have never taken an ancient history course, neither at school nor university. I actually did want to do ancient history at school; I was fascinated by it even then, and also archaeology and palaeontology. Unfortunately my school's timetable had a total clash between the top level mathematics course and ancient history. It had never occurred to them someone might want to do both.

There was never any doubt how that clash was going to get resolved. Maths and science was my future; history was just for fun. Rather ironic I'm now making money from the just for fun bit, but for a few decades beforehand I was earning a fine living from the technical side so it's all come out right.

What I did do was read both Herodotus and Thucydides end to end in my spare time before I was 17. Also Tacitus, Polybius and Plutarch. Since my memory is excellent (he says modestly) I probably could have passed the ancient history exam anyway.

For that matter, I have no writing qualifications either. When I got on the social networking sites, after I'd signed with Janet, people would talk about having an MFA and I had to look up what it meant. English was my worst subject at school.

So if you googled your way here looking for an official, university-approved author with vast qualifications in his subject matter, you've definitely come to the wrong place. This is very much Gary doing it seat of the pants, and having fun as I go.

Let loose the hunting dogs of Classical Greece

After I posted the Dog of Xanthippus, Mimzy asked what was the breed? I had no idea. After some research here is what I think is the answer. If there are any dog breed experts out there, could you please correct me if (when) I go wrong?

The Greeks kept two kinds of dog: sheep dogs (no surprise there) and hunting dogs. Here are the obverses from two ancient coins showing hunters:

Xenophon wrote a treatise about hunting with dogs. Yes, that's the same Xenophon who led the 10,000 out of Persia and the same Xenophon who was a student of Socrates. In fact he's probably the second most important source we have about Socrates, after Plato.

Xenophon deeply admired the Spartans. This made Athens an uncomfortable place for him, so he spent much of his life out of it, during which he wrote. Most of his work was about various manly pursuits, one being Cynegeticus, meaning On Hunting. He had this to say about breeds:
There are two breeds of sporting dogs: the Castorian and the fox-like. The former get their name from Castor, in memory of the delight he took in the business of the chase, for which he kept this breed by preference. The other breed is literally foxy, being the progeny originally of the dog and the fox, whose natures have in the course of ages blended.
Interesting they were using dog/fox crosses! I didn't think that was possible but Xenophon seems quite sure of himself. Then again, Xenophon is always sure of himself. A very quick internet check suggests it might be possible, but if anyone knowledgable is reading this, please tell us.

The descendants of the hunting dogs of Classical Greece are probably what today are called Greek Hounds.

I can't resist finishing with Xenophon's advice (from Chapter 7) on the correct names for your hunting dog.
They should have short names given them, which will be easy to call out. The following may serve as specimens:—Psyche, Pluck, Buckler, Spigot, Lance, Lurcher, Watch, Keeper, Brigade, Fencer, Butcher, Blazer, Prowess, Craftsman, Forester, Counsellor, Spoiler, Hurry, Fury, Growler, Riot, Bloomer, Strength, Blossom, Hebe, Hilary, Jolity, Gazer, Eyebright, Much, Force, Trooper, Bustle, Bubbler, Rockdove, Stubborn, Yelp, Killer, Pele-mele, Strongboy, Sky, Sunbeam, Bodkin, Wistful, Gnome, Tracks, Dash.
As you can see Xenophon had a firm opinion for almost any subject. You could almost say he was, errr, dogmatic.

The Rock of the Areopagus, and how to get a dead body off it

Here are the opening paragraphs of my first book:
A dead man fell from the sky, landing at my feet with a thud. I stopped and stood there like a fool, astonished to see him lying where I was about to step. He lay face down in the dirt, arms spread wide, with an arrow protruding out his back. He’d been shot through the heart.

It was obvious he was dead, but I knelt down and touched him anyway, perhaps because I needed to assure myself that he was real. The body was warm to my touch. The blood that stained my fingertips, from where I had touched his wound, was slippery and wet but already beginning to dry in the heat, and the small cloud of dust his fall had raised made my nose itch as it settled.

It doesn’t normally rain corpses, so where had this one come from? I looked up. There was a ledge above me, and another to the left. The one directly above was the Rock of the Areopagus, home to the council chambers of our elder statesmen. The other to the left but much further away was the Acropolis. There was no doubt about it; this man had fallen from the political heights.

My hero Nicolaos is walking the path from the Agora (marketplace) to the famous Acropolis when a dead man drops in.

If you've ever been a tourist in Athens, you'll know the path from the Agora twists up and around, between the Acropolis and a second, much smaller rock. This is the Areopagus, which means the hill of Ares or in the Latin version, hill of Mars. Here's a picture from Wikimedia Commons:

This is a modern view of the Areopagus from atop the neighboring and much more famous Acropolis. The white arrow shows, roughly, the point from which my victim fell. Nicolaos is on the path below, about to be surprised.

I had marvelous fun working out how a body could come off the Areopagus and hit the path. It's possible because the body can bounce on the way down, and because things are different now than they were then.

To start with, the vegetation you see between the rocks was not there in 461BC. This was a major thoroughfare for the Classical Athenians, probably a very wide one, and it's perfectly possible for the path to be to the right of where it is today. Back then it was called the Panathenaic Way, the most famous road in Classical Athens since all ritual processions passed along it. If you wanted to get to the Acropolis, where the most important temples were, this was the only way to get there.

The Rock of the Areopagus would have looked a little bit different too. It was the meeting place of the Council of the Areopagus, which until that point was the ruling body of Athens. There were probably no buildings on top - the Greeks did their business in the open air - but imagine seats and a speaking platform carved into the surface of the rock you see in the picture. If you wander around the Areopagus today as these tourists are, you can still see chisel marks and areas which have obviously been carved and eroded. The blood stains from my victim however can no longer be seen.

So this rock once supported the governing body of Athens, right up until the democracy was introduced. It's said too, although it's in no way relevant to Nicolaos and his friends, that five centuries later, St Paul would stand on this rock to preach to the Athenians.

The Areopagus had another, more ominous function. It was here that the court met to hear cases of murder and heresy. 62 years after the opening words of my book, Socrates stood at the place you see in this picture to be condemned to death for heresy.

The dog of Xanthippus

Xanthippus, the father of Pericles, was a war hero from the time of the invasion of the Persians. In the early stages of the conflict he commanded a trireme.

Like any wealthy landholder, Xanthippus owned a hunting dog. We don't know the name of his dog, but we do know they were inseperable. They went to war together, even to sea battles.

After the Persians broke through at Thermopylae it was clear Athens couldn't be saved. Themistocles, who more or less commanded the Greek forces, ordered the evacuation of the city. Amazingly, his proclamation still exists, inscribed in a stone tablet. Here's a picture from Wikimedia Commons. The authenticity of the tablet is considered controversial by some, but the odds are fair you are looking at the real thing.

Even with the best preparation, the evacuation of a major city could have been nothing but a shambles. Crowds of people – the whole city, tens of thousands – packed the ports desperate to get away before the Persians enslaved the women and children and killed the men.

The Athenians used their whole fleet, which was the largest in the world, plus anything that would float. Hundreds of boats rowed from the port of Piraeus to the island of Salamis where they had refuge, every trip dangerously overloaded. It was like an ancient version of Dunkirk but with civilians thrown in. Herodotus says it was amazing how few boats capsized.

This was 19 years before the time of my first novel. Nicolaos is 1 year old; Pericles is a boy. They would both have been taken to the relative safety of Salamis. But there weren't enough boats to save everyone. They got away all the able-bodied men, and the women and children who were the future of the city. Then they had to make some hard decisions. Old men, old women, the badly injured and the sick, had to stay behind. There was no room or time.

Xanthippus commanded the last boat out. Probably the Persians were already in the city. The dog of Xanthippus was occupying very little room, but it was room where another man could stand. Xanthippus had to choose between his dog, and saving the life of one more Athenian. He released the dog onto shore and ordered him to run away to the hills, hoping he'd survive. The men began to row. The boat would have been so full the sea lapped at the gunwales. The people left behind would have been wailing and screaming for them to return.

Xanthippus' dog watched his master depart. Then he leaped into the sea, and swam. He caught up the boat and stayed with it, swimming alongside. The people onboard saw what he was doing and shouted encouragement. There's no way a dog should have been able to keep pace with a trireme, but he did. Presumably the load on the trireme was such it could move only very slowly. To swim the distance was impossible, but the dog refused to give up.

The dog of Xanthippus swam all the way from Piraeus to Salamis.

When they got there the dog staggered up onto the beach and collapsed onto the sand, and there, with Xanthippus, he died of exhaustion.

Xanthippus was devastated. He built a tomb for his dog at the place where he died, and ever after, that point on the headland was called Dog's Tomb.

A few days later, in a do-or-die effort, the Greeks crushed the Persian navy in the straits of Salamis.

Coach or trainer?

A question for those of us who speak fluent American: do you say coach or trainer to refer to someone who is directing your training for a sport? I think trainers usually means shoes.

He wore out his trainers could mean one of two things.

He sat on the coach has its ambiguities too.

He sat with his coach on the coach clutching his trainers
doesn't bear thinking about.

The winning word becomes the standard in my current book.

Chary about business reports

Back when I was earning a nefarious living as a software consultant I wrote a lot of reports for clients, hundreds of the things. Most of these reports were for retail banks, investment banks, investment companies and stock traders, because Sydney is chock-a-block full of financial institutions and they have bigger budgets than anyone. The job of any good consultant in Sydney is to harvest as much money as possible from the financials or, if you prefer easy pickings, government departments.

But there was a problem. People said my reports were too chatty.

If you've ever read a business report, you'll know they're soporific, mostly because of the utter lack of imagination, the absolute insistence on cliches, stock phrases, and the mindless repetition of the dogma du jour from whoever's pushing the latest braindead business philosophy.

It wasn't in me to write BusinessSpeak. My reports bore a remarkable resemblance to the style of this blog. Some people appreciated it, and when they did it paid off big time, but many didn't.

Once when I did a job for LittleBank, I wrote a report in which I said, amongst many other things, that I was chary about the settings in their database system. I duly delivered the report. Days later, the client calls. He says chary is not a word. There were pages and pages of important technical stuff in the report, but what worries him is the word chary. Somewhat bemused, I assured him chary was a word, told him the meaning, and gave him the reference in the OED. Then I ask if he had any other problems with the report. He says no.

Months later, the accounts people tell me the client doesn't want to pay the bill because there's a problem with the report. Very surprised, I call and ask. Did I make a bad error? Did they follow my advice and the system melted down? No. They haven't followed any of my advice. The problem is chary is not a word.

So I changed chary to worried, sent them a new copy, and they paid the bill.

This was my fault, because I hadn't correctly written for my target audience. But sometimes the client would be happy and still weirdness would result. Such was the case for The Report That Refused To Die.

At one point I did a highly important report for BigBank. BigBank had a major system running across thousands of branches, which they desperately needed to move from one operating system to another, quite different one. Such a move is called porting the software, or doing a port. I wrote a hyper-detailed description of what they'd need to do, and gave it the title Any Port In A Storm. It was an in-joke, and I'd peppered the text with jokes because otherwise it was about 200 pages of solid detail. It needed something to lighten it. Besides, it was an internal document, I knew everyone who'd be reading it, and I was sure they'd be cool. And so they were.

Months pass.

I start getting calls from all sorts of companies who want to talk to me. It seems BigBank has put the project out to tender, and a large slab of the tender document is Any Port In A Storm, jokes included, all written in my own unique style. All across Asia and the Indian subcontinent, technical guys were thumbing through my text. I hope they laughed at the funny bits.

BigBank choked on all the quotes which came in for the port, cancelled the project, and that was that.

Many years later I and another consultant were asked out of the blue to meet with Big US Outsourcer. They start quizzing us about BigBank's problem system. In fact they display surprisingly detailed knowledge of it. The customer account guy from Big US Outsourcer opens his briefcase, pulls out a well-thumbed photocopy, and tosses it on the table. It's Any Port In A Storm.

Bemused, I ask where did they get that report? BigBank had passed it along. I am astonished BigBank hadn't lost every copy. But no, the project is resurrected and the document is doing the rounds of a huge list of people in the US looking at this problem. The fact that the report is now years out of date is irrelevant. It seems Any Port In A Storm is bestseller material.

Big US Outsourcer wants to charge ten times what the previous quotes had come in at years before.

BigBank choked on the quote from Big US Outsourcer, and that was that.

Years passed. I moved on to other things.

One day I get a call from a consultant. Had I written something called Any Port In A Storm? Yes I had, I say, stifling my laughter, ten years ago.

This time it happened, they actually got it ported. But Any Port In A Storm was so totally out of date they did it a different way.

That report is easily my highest print run publication ever.

This post was written to the tune of Que Sera Sera by Doris Day. I told you my music list was eclectic.

History and Historical Fiction

I suppose you'll get conflicting answers depending who you ask, but here's my take on the difference between history and historical fiction:

History deals with what's probable, historical fiction works with what's possible.

There's a big difference between these two!

A book of history is based on what we know for sure happened, and for the many gaps, experts do their best to paint in what most probably happened. You're going to get conflicts of opinion because the experts weight the available evidence differently, and personal interpretation comes into it, but no matter what, everyone's arguing for their own view of reality.

Historical fiction is about what's possible, not what's most probable. The historical fiction writer selects the interesting or dramatic within the wide range of possibilities that might have happened, unlikely as some of the options are.

For example I have Pericles commissioning Nico to find the killer of Ephialtes. There was a for-real Ephialtes, and he was for-real murdered, but there is not the slightest evidence to suggest Pericles commissioned an investigation. On the other hand is there anything to prove he didn't? No. Good, so this plot is fair game for an historical mystery writer.

This can become a grand game of what-is-the-most-outrageous-thing-you-can't-prove-didn't-happen. For example I mentioned the other day the possibility of killing someone beneath the hooves of stampeding mules at the Olympics. I could kill someone that way, in theory, because no Classical Greek ever actually wrote, "I went to the Olympics last week and funnily enough no one died beneath the hooves of stampeding mules." But I won't because there's a limit to the credibility I can stretch you, and that might be a trifle over the top, even for me.

The key element is it's a game. In fact, it's a game within a game, because if you're writing historical mystery then there's a murder for you the reader to solve, there's real history to deliver, there's warped possible history to interlace with the real history, which is fun for me, and there's the game the reader gets to play spotting the places I got it wrong.

I do have to get it wrong in places. I estimate the number of details in each book is in the low hundreds; it's impossible I could get them all right. The most accurate historical fiction writer ever was probably George MacDonald Fraser with his Flashman stories, and he famously placed the Duke of Wellington's wife at the opera three years after her death. If he can't get perfection, I certainly can't, but I try.

I do think it necessary the historical fiction writer not break known history. So for example if I wrote a story in which the Athenians conquered Rome, that would be naughty. Something like that isn't historical fiction, it's alternate history, which is a quite different genre closer to fantasy. But where there's uncertainty, and I'm allowed to pick and choose from the possibilities, no matter how unlikely they might be, you can be reasonably sure I'm going to pick whatever's funniest.

Books Gary bought today

Say It With Poison, by Ann Granger
To Play The Fool, by Laurie R. King
The Janissary Tree, by Jason Goodwin

The local Borders (we don't have B&N here) runs discount coupons each week and sometimes they are actually useful. This week it's 3 for 2 on mysteries and thrillers. I'm such a cheapskate.

Music is currently off because I am reading the first couple of scenes of the third book to myself. It's amazing how much you can improve something by reading it aloud. Rhythm problems leap off the page and so do poor word combinations. It has to be easy to say, because if it's easy to say, it's easy to read.

Happy Blogday to Anthony!

Happy First Birthday to Anthony's Blog. Anthony's a fine writer and all-round nice guy and well worth a read.

I get a mention in his blogday post, which is a great honour considering everyone else he lists is a really nice person.

Agent Kristin always begins her posts with what's playing on her iPod. After the post about music I think I'll list mine for a while. So: this post was written to the tune of Mexican Radio by Wall of Voodoo.

Now you can go check out Anthony.