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.