Interview with Donna Hole

I was interviewed by Donna Hole, and the result is up today on her blog.  Most of her questions were about the publishing experience.

I hope everyone's having fun over Christmas break!  I got a Formula 1 racing game.  I instantly turned off all the driver assists, to drive the cars as they actually are.  You wouldn't believe how many times I've spun out.

Santa Claus

As I write this, it is mere hours to Christmas, or Saturnalia as those of us who live in the ancient world prefer to call it.

Where did the year go?

Well in my case, it went in completing my second book and having it accepted by St Martin's Press, in having my first book released, so that I went from being an everyday writer to a Published Author, in having the foreign rights bought by Penguin, in doing my first ever book tour, in making the Google ebook bestseller list (what a shock), and in finishing a readable draft of my third book.

I've earned my nervous breakdown. But wow, what a year. I don't expect I'll ever have another like it.

Our Christmas is precisely the Roman holiday Saturnalia. Two ancient mysteries have been entitled Saturnalia: one by John Maddox Roberts and one by Lindsey Davis.

The jolly man in the red suit, however, was a Greek.  Today we spell his name St Nicholas, but the original was a chap named Saint Nicolaos.  Note that his name is spelled the same way as my hero.  No, there's no relation between them that I know of.  Nicolaos has been a common name for thousands of years.  The Santa part of Santa Claus is obviously Saint.  The Claus part comes from the –colaos part of Nicolaos.

So I wish you all a fantastic holiday, and may Santa Claus be good to you.

Io Saturnalia!

Pushing through the odds

Nevets is posting a series on his blog, of pearls of wisdom from published authors.

My humble contribution appeared today: how I dealt with the knowledge that agents receive 10,000 submissions a year, from which they might sign one or two.  Doesn't sound good odds, does it?  Hop on over to see why, in fact, those numbers are irrelevant.

I've been very quiet online recently, for a good reason: my sheer desperation to finish the third ms before Christmas, at least to the state where I can give it to others to check.  For the last four weeks I've been saying it'll be finished tomorrow.  Now, I have only two pages left to revise, plus some minor fixes and a few logic problems that surfaced when I wrote the explanation of how the crime was committed.  (I always spot inconsistencies when I write that bit...surprisingly, they're always easy to fix).

So I'm revising my standard chant:  it won't be finished tomorrow; it'll be finished today.

Which is a good thing because our Christmas street party is tonight.

Think your editor is tough? Try this one.

Back in the days when gladiators hacked away at each other, there was always the man who decided whether the defeated should live or die.  The job is usually given to the Emperor in movies, but in fact any senior man could have been the designated thumbs-up-thumbs-down guy.  

The official title for this fellow was...the editor.   (evil laughter in background)

Casting the (nonexistent) movie

I was asked by Marshal Zeringue, how I would cast The Pericles Commission if it were made into a movie. I was allowed to pick any actors I liked throughout time. I took him up on that offer.

My partial cast for The Pericles Commission is on his blog: My Book, The Movie.

It will make more sense if you've read the book. If you have, I'd be fascinated to know your own cast list.

SPOILER ALERT: Discussion of casting inevitably runs the risk of spoilers, if only because it requires listing characters and their relationships. People sensitive to spoilers who haven't read the book yet should not read the comments to this post!

(...and to those making comments, please be sensitive to the problem. Thanks!)

Pericles Commission #16 on Google's ebook bestseller list

Yesterday I got an email from Carolyn Kellogg at the LA Times, asking how it felt to be #16 on Google's ebook bestseller list.

I replied, "What?"

So I checked. Then I went into shock.

(You might need to click the image to see it in all its glory)

Carolyn wrote an article, on how Pericles Commission is the only unexpected entry in the bestseller list. It was certainly unexpected by me! Not that I'm complaining, you understand.

So I've been pondering how this happy event managed to occur, because I'm keeping very, very impressive company on that page.

The sales numbers must be relatively small, since we're looking at only one day of trading since Google's ebookstore went online, but they give the expected result for everyone else, so sales must be sufficiently large to avoid randomness. The only conclusion I can reach is that my readers are more than usually tech-savvy early adopters. But you'd know that better than me. What do you think?

I presume I'll fall off the list after the next update, but I'm enjoying it while it lasts!

Gary's thoughts on book marketing, draft #1

Since I'm now a little bit along the publishing path, I thought I'd stop for a moment to offer my thoughts, such as they are, on book marketing. I called it draft #1 because I speak from my vast experience of precisely one recently published novel. Come back this time next year and I'll probably say something different.

  1. The single most important marketing strategy is to write a good book. If you've done that, then the second most important thing is to write another good book. Word of mouth is the best marketing scheme ever. It only happens if you write a good book.

  2. A good review is worth its weight in gold. Believe me, I know; I've been super-blessed in that department. You can't force, engineer, or ask for a good review. See point 1 about writing a good book.

  3. Do a public speaking course, and then practise at local events. Practise until you're so used to getting up in front of random strangers that it becomes a chore and not a terror. I've had some public speaking experience in the past. I can't begin to tell you how important it was to be able to get up in front of a crowd and feel confident.

  4. Blog if you have something to say. Do not blog if you have nothing to say. Some people are natural bloggers, and to my surprise, I appear to be one of them. (I would never have guessed, seriously.) An unattended, trivial, or boring blog is worse than no blog.

  5. Book trailers. I looked into it very closely, asked people, surveyed GoodReads, asked you, my fine readers of this blog. As far as I can tell, a good trailer is unlikely to generate noticeable sales, but a bad trailer is capable of turning people away. Most trailers are the video equivalent of powerpoint. Don't do it, unless Spielberg is your second cousin.

  6. The social networking thingies...use them if you would have anyway. Do not use them if the sum total of your communicative desires is, "Buy my book."

  7. Even if you love social networking, don't try and do everything. That way lies madness and unbelievably low productivity (see point 1 about writing a good book). Pick two sites. Personally, I loathe facebook but rather enjoy Twitter and GoodReads.

  8. Bookmarks, postcards, and other stuff generally known as "swag". I have a handful of guitar picks labeled Felonious Jazz. Bryan Gilmer was giving them away at Bouchercon 2009. It's the only swag that ever caught my attention. Bookmarks are hugely popular and totally worth your while. Some people actually collect author bookmarks for their own sake. Postcards are for posting to library buyers and indie stores, to let them know your book exists. The problem with postcards is printers have minimum orders, and you don't need more than about 400. If my library sales and indie orders are any indication, then the system works, but to be honest I suspect it was the reviews from Publishers Weekly and Library Journal that really prompted buyers.

Review in the Richmond Times-Dispatch

Not that I'd be one to boast—no, of course not—but the Richmond Times-Dispatch has this terrific review of Pericles Commission.

Here's the full text:

Basing a novel on a real-life case isn't a new form of fiction -- and not always a successful one -- but Australian writer Gary Corby tells a crackerjack story in his debut mystery.
In 461 B.C., reformer Ephialtes was murdered in Athens, and it's from that killing that Corby fashions The Pericles Commission (335 pages, Minotaur Books, $24.99), a happy melding of historical figures with fictional characters.
When Ephialtes' body falls from above and lands at the feet of 20-year-old Nicolaos -- the fictional son of the sculptor Sophornicus and the older brother of Socrates -- Nicolaos is given a commission by the politician Pericles to find the killer.
Nicolaos has no desire to follow his father's profession and instead wants to rise to Athenian leadership. As he investigates Ephialtes' murder, he discovers a hotbed of political intrigue involving ideology, ambition and corruption. But he also wonders whether the motive for killing Ephialtes might be more personal. And amidst his pursuit, as the bodies pile up, he finds himself falling for Diotima, the dead man's daughter by the courtesan Euterpe.
Corby makes his story sing, with a fascinating plot and well-executed characters both real and fictional. And rarely has Greek history been more accessible to the layman.

For what it's worth, my observation is that nowadays a large number of historical mysteries use real historical characters, and a noticeable proportion refer to real events. It's harder work, but it's very rewarding.

Maybe an even greater number borrow fictional characters to use as detectives, or use real authors as detectives, or other deliberately out-of-place famous people. They're the ones I'd be less sure about. It's nice having the shock value of, say, Joan of Arc as your detective, but very, very difficult to maintain across a novel. If you're to do something that stretches credibility, it has to be for a good reason that makes sense in story context.

I've been quiet on the blog in the last couple of weeks because I have almost...almost...almost...finished book 3. I keep telling my wife it'll be finished tomorrow.

Hadrian's Wall, and the guy who knows it better than anyone else

I'm in awe of Geoff Carter. He's a structural archaeologist in northern England who specializes in how people used to go about building things. It's amazing what he can deduce from holes in the ground.

Geoff shot to fame with an analysis that showed Hadrian's Wall was originally timber.

As part of a documentary, he's recently posted this article about earthworks alongside Hadrian's Wall.

A lot of his other work is on prehistoric structures, such as roundhouses and forts.

The most amazing thing about his archaeology reports is that they are actually well-written, highly readable if you can cope with the minute detail, and sprinkled with fun phrases. I wish all academics and business people wrote as well as him. I particularly like his view that the proper study of mankind is postholes.

The Penguin Pericles

Look what I've got!

Coming to Australian bookstores real soon now.


Update: the Oz release date is officially Tuesday, 4th January.

The page 69 test

The Page 69 test is a fascinating idea by Marshal Zeringue. Is page 69 representative of the rest of the book? Would a reader skimming that page be inclined to read on?

I took the Page 69 test for The Pericles Commission.  By sheer luck, it happens to contain one of the book's central conflicts.

The weird world of book marketing

Vicki Leon interviews Steven Saylor, Vicky Alvear Shecter, Ruth Downie, Adrienne Mayor, Caroline Lawrence,, on the fun and games of marketing your book.

Vicki Leon is the author of Working IX to V, and How to Mellify A Corpse.  Both very funny non-fiction guides to the ancient world!

It struck me how many authors' worst moments involve large rooms without people.

Gary buys books

The local Borders is having a sale. Every book $5. So I bought a few.

Since the books are remaindered, I believe the authors don't receive royalties. Apologies to Lee Child, Megan Abbott, Jeffrey Deaver et al. I'll buy you a coffee at the next Bouchercon to compensate.

Spartan cloaks: red, scarlet, vermilion?

The floor is open for nominations.  What color would you say was the cloak worn by the Spartans?

Unlike the other city states, the Spartans had something approaching standard issue wear, and it included a cloak that might be described as red, scarlet or vermilion.  (Or perhaps some other shade?).

In my third book, working title Sacred Games, I refer a few times to the famous cloak.  As I read through the ms, I find I've used all three words to describe the color.  This won't do!

I've put a poll widget on the right hand side of the blog page.  Feel free to express your opinion.

What makes this more fun is that if you base your answer on movies you've seen, such as 300, then it's the blind leading the blind, because their choice is as random as mine.  To the best of my knowledge, there's no surviving example of the real thing.

Could women watch the Olympic Games?

I want to address the vexing question of whether women were permitted to watch the Olympic Games.

Certainly there was a women's camp. It contained the women and children of any men who'd seen fit to bring their families, plus a whole lot of hookers, both pornoi (working girls) and hetaerae (high class courtesans). The women's camp was on the opposite side the river from where the Olympics were held, and there was an easy ford so people could cross at will.

It's known for sure that there was a law forbidding married women from watching the Games. If a married woman was caught inside the stadion, or even on the wrong side of the river, while the Games were in progress, then the prescribed penalty was to throw her to her death from Mount Typaion, a cliff-laden area on the road from Elis to Olympia. But I'm not aware of the penalty ever being exacted, and frankly it seems unlikely to me that men are going to off a woman like that.

There was one woman who was caught red handed. Her name was Kallipateira, and she had personally trained her son in athletics. When he competed at Olympia, she disguised herself as a man and sat in the box with the other trainers. When her son won, she got a trifle too excited and was caught out.

They didn't have the heart to exact the penalty, so they let her off. Ever afterwards, the trainers of the athletes were required to attend the Games stark naked, to prevent another woman pulling the same trick.

There was one woman who was required to watch. That was the Priestess of Demeter from the city of Elis. Olympia lay within the boundaries of Elis and the Eleans supplied all the officials. No one fully understands why a priestess of Demeter had to be there, but we know the contests were considered invalid unless the Priestess of Demeter had watched. There was no temple to Demeter at Olympia, which makes it even weirder.

Oddly, the rule forbade only married women. As a result it's become a standard meme on the internet that virgins could watch the Olympics. This is helped by an ancient writer called Pausanias having made some vague statements about seeing virgins at the Games.

Let's think about that. We have a stadion filled with tens of thousands of drunken, sports-crazed men, and scattered in amongst them are a bunch of teenage virgins.

I don't think so!

What is very likely is that fathers brought along unmarried daughters, to matchmake them with eligible bachelors from other cities. But there's no way virgins were in the stadion when the contests were held. It's just a recipe for disaster.

Normally, when I write my mysteries of Classical Greece, I take the most liberal possible interpretation of the status of women consistent with known history. But this is one instance where I'm a rock-solid conservative. The only women watching the Games were the Priestess of Demeter and, maybe, a few of her assistants.

Centuries & Sleuths

My final blog post about the tour has been overtaken by events. This email was sent the other day by the Mystery Writers of America:
Two exceptional mystery bookstores will be honored with the 2011 Raven Award. ... Once Upon a Crime, in Minneapolis, MN, and Centuries & Sleuths in Chicago, IL, will receive recognition for their contribution to the mystery community.
Centuries & Sleuths Bookstore was named one of the Ten Best Bookstores in Chicago by the Chicago Tribune. Many customers have tagged the owner, Augie Alesky, as the coolest bookseller in Chicago. "I have always wanted a Raven. The mystery community is such a great place,” Alesky said upon hearing the news.
The store has hosted hundreds of author readings and talks, with both new and established writers. Augie’s programs are innovative, including mock trials, debates, and numerous “Meeting of Minds” programs similar to the PBS series. In fact, from the very first days of opening, actors and then authors themselves were encouraged to dress in period costumes to illustrate and dramatize a book. Centuries & Sleuths was nominated for the American Booksellers Association “Bookseller of the Year” award in 2008. The store marks its 20th Anniversary this year.
Augie is indeed a very cool and happy guy with an infectious laugh. Here he is, looking unusually serious:

Augie, minus Raven Award but plus Pericles Commission
And here's the first thing I saw when I arrived at the store:
The lovely display in the front window when I arrived. All the books around it are to do with Ancient Greece
Congratulations Augie and Centuries and Sleuths!

Chicago was notable for meeting two other fantastic people: Judy Bobalik who is a serial Bouchercon organizer -- and you can't get much more insane than that -- and Merry Monteleone. Merry was present at the grand event now known as The Strange Case of the Missing Gary, and has been following my publishing adventures ever since. It was terrific to meet one of the veterans of the Gary-gets-published saga!

Announcing: the Australian cover!

Looks different, doesn't it!

When I first met Belinda, my lovely editor publisher at Penguin Oz (congrats to Belinda on her promotion!), one of the first things she said to me was, "Of course, we'll have to change the cover." And I asked, "Why?"

Cover change is not only normal, it's expected. The people who understand these things swear that reader cultural response to covers is radically different across countries, even between the English speaking nations. I thought it was an old wive's tale, but when I put my two covers side by side, and showed them to locals, the Australians said they preferred the Oz version. I should imagine most US readers would say the reverse.

The screen image, by the way, does not begin to do justice to the very cool texture of the background.

I'm battling to get an expert on cover design to write about it here, but unfortunately they are all shy!

Gary and the chemical explosives

Some years ago, in 2002 I think it was, I happened to be passing through Los Angeles airport on my way for a flight back home. Airport security was considerably tighter than it used to be, but all those incredibly annoying scanners had yet to be installed.

I was randomly selected for a baggage check. (The fact that not all bags were checked tells you how long ago this was.)

Fine. I handed over my bag.

They opened it up, had a poke around, then swiped the inside with a small piece of material which they popped into a machine.

Red lights flashed! Alarms sounded! Nice men with guns appeared!

"What's wrong?" I asked.
"Sir, please step back behind the red line," said a nice man with a gun.
I stepped back behind the red line.
"What's wrong?" I repeated.
"Sir, your bag has tested positive for chemical explosives."

Well this was going to be fun! I knew I was pure as the driven snow, in this one small respect at least, so I settled in for an interesting experience.

It will come as no surprise that everything came out of the bag. Then they pulled the frame out of the bag. Then they looked inside the frame. Then they looked inside the lining. All clothing was minutely inspected. I had probably 15 or 20 books in that bag, some of them huge technical volumes. They turned every single page.

While this was going on, another nice man took my passport and wandered off with it, no doubt to ask the FBI if I was known to them. He returned while they were still flipping pages and tearing my laptop apart. He gave me a strange look, and didn't return the passport.

That's when I remembered that, not long before, I'd had to get a Federal Police security check.

The check was so I could do some work at Argyle Diamond Mine, which is the largest source of pink diamonds in the world. Once you're inside the compound, the diamonds are just lying on the ground, so they prefer to restrict visitors to honest people and successful thieves who haven't been caught yet. (While walking past swept-up heaps of small black rocks, I'd asked, "Where are the diamonds?").

But the nice men at LAX wouldn't have known that detail. All they would have known was that the Australian Federal Police had queried the FBI for a standard check on me, and the FBI had probably recorded that query. And now here I was, testing positive for chemical explosives.

After they had reduced the bag to its component atoms, they asked, "Have you ever spilled any soap or washing powder in this bag?"

As it happened, my wife and I had used this bag on our honeymoon, and washing powder had indeed been spilled. Fourteen years before.

"That must be it, then. The machine detected the phosphorus."

From fourteen years ago?

They reassembled the bag and repacked. I tried to help several times, but each time was politely but firmly told to get back behind that red line. So I watched them make a complete hash of the repack. Lumps bulged in odd places and the zipper strained. They handed back my passport. I moved to pick up the bag, but was told, "No sir, this man here--" they indicated one of their own, no doubt the most unimportant man present, "--this man will carry your bag until you get on your plane."

My new friend was having none of that. He picked up my bag, brushed past the long queue of people waiting to check in, and stopped at the front desk.

"Check this passenger in at once."

And that's how to get to the head of the queue at LAX. But I wouldn't necessarily recommend it. We threw away the bag when I got home.

Aunt Agatha's

I had a fantastic time at the author event at Aunt Agatha's, in the lovely university town of Ann Arbor.

Now I pause at this point. If you're my literary agent, would you please avert your eyes. I wouldn't want you to become sad, or use me for chum.


Okay, now that The Shark's not reading, I'll admit I probably did everything at the Ann Arbor event that an author's not supposed to do. Which is no surprise, because until Pericles Commission released, I'd never seen one. Yes, the first author event I ever attended was my own. I'm what's called a pantster when it comes to writing and, it seems at events too.

One of the great mysteries of the universe is this: what is an author supposed to talk about at an author event?

In my case, I have a tendency to talk about the innards of my book. On the face of it, this is reasonable, but received wisdom is that readers turn up to book events to learn about the author and his personality. Alas, my personality runs to the uber-geek, so with the best will in the world, I'm usually sucked into talking about the fun history.

To my joy, at Aunt Agatha's I was in a room of like-minded people. I'm pretty sure we spent 3 solid hours talking about ancient Greek history...yes, Janet is wincing...that's probably her head your hear thumping the wall ...but I cannot tell a lie.

It went three hours because these kind people in the picture took me to dinner before the talk, and the moment I sat down, someone asked a history question about the book. It was all downhill from there...when we removed to the store, we kept going, and I'm sure I'd still be there if the lovely proprietess Robin Agnew, standing at the back, hadn't politely suggested it was well past 9pm. (Another blunder on my part; authors are supposed to watch the time.)

So all this proves is I'm an amateur at the book tour biz. That's okay; I'll get more normal with practice.

But the important thing is I had fun, and I know the Ann Arboreans had fun because they hung around and chatted and bought books. (I just made up Ann Arboreans, but it looks right, doesn't it?)

One slightly embarrassing moment: I discovered, to my surprise, that I don't know my own book! I wanted to quote a piece of dialog, but do you think I could find it amongst all those pages? It was up to the kind gentleman on the left in the picture, to save me by flipping through while I chatted away. There was no chance of spoilers: he'd already read the book! He therefore wins the prize as the first Real Person I've ever met who's read my book before they met me.

I had so much fun at that talk, I can't wait to go back and see the nice people at Aunt Agatha's again. (A desire assisted by the fact that Ann Arbor is a gorgeous place with good coffee.)

So I'd be interested to know, if you're at an author event, what do you want to hear? What is the perfect author talk?

Attack of the Giant Rodents

Two days after the author talk at Mysterious Galaxy, I was taken on a tour of the world famous San Diego Zoo, by none other than zoo volunteer and well known giraffe-kisser L.T. Host. (If you've ever seen her avatar, you'll know what I mean.)

LT and friends
Only a couple of weeks before, L.T. had upgraded from giraffes to her very own husband, Scott, who is an incredibly nice guy, and very patient with out-of-towners disrupting his life.

LT and husband Scott. Giraffes now forsaken.
Scott and L.T. introduced me to the native food of San Diego: fish tacos.

I'll ignore every animal in the wildly fantastic zoo except for these:

This is a capybara. It's the largest rodent in the world. It grows to about 1.3 meters in length. That's a bit over 4 feet.

If you found these in your attic, you really would have a serious rodent problem. The pictures don't begin to tell you how big these things are. We keep guinea pigs, which are also rodents, but a guinea pig is tiny in comparison. This is how tiny:

Taken from
Yes, that's a guinea pig on the capybara's back. This is the most famous capybara in the world. His name is Caplin Rous, and he has more twitter followers than I do.

Win a copy of The Pericles Commission!

My good friend Stephanie Thornton has begun a competition on her blog.  The prize is a copy of The Pericles Commission, plus an extremely nifty bronze statue of the goddess Nike.

What's an author to do when he has fantastic support like this?  All I can do is say, thanks Stephanie.  You rock!

Click on over to Stephanie's blog and see if you can win the free copy!

Gary is home

I'm back home from the US tour.  I had a wonderful time, but it's unbelievably good to see my womenfolk again, and to sit in my own comfy little office, writing blog posts and books.

I tried to break the jet lag in one go, which meant staying awake throughout the day.  When I couldn't stay awake any longer, at 9pm, when I'd been awake for 45 hours, I collapsed and slept for 10 hours.  It seems to have worked though because I feel more or less normal.

I nominate these awards from the trip:

Best public transport system while on tour:  the Seattle buses.  Especially the cool way they turn into electric trams in the tunnels underneath the city.  Why doesn't every US city have these?

Best intercity trip:  the Amtrack from Ann Arbor to Chicago.  Comfortable, cost-effective, and incredibly convenient.

Best Airline:  Frontier Airlines.  Flew with them from San Diego to Detroit.  They have real people at real check-ins!  No machine replacements for people!  Staff who seemed genuinely happy to be there!  Totally crushed both United and American. Well done, guys.

Best coffee and muffin:  Bakery, (that's its name) in San Diego.

Best non-private-friend place to stay: Inn at Michigan League in Ann Arbor.

Career highlight: the ancient mystery panel at Bouchercon.

Weirdest moment: every time I walked into a store and saw my book on display.  A huge thank you to "M" is for Mystery, the Seattle Mystery Bookshop, Mysterious Galaxy, Aunt Agatha's, and Centuries and Sleuths.

Gary travels home: be back online in a few days

There's a lot to catch up on -- the event at Aunt Agatha's in Ann Arbor, the event last night at Centuries and Sleuths, Gary's plan to save America with fast trains -- but the last few days have been too hectic for a proper blog post, and in the next hour I leave the US for another year.  So it'll all have to wait until I get home.  I have an afternoon flight from Chicago to LA (about 4 hours), a layover of 4 hours during which I have to get through security for the second time that day, then a 15 hour flight home and at least another 2 hours after that.  Estimated total awake time: 33 hours.  Not that I'm whining or anything...

 So I'll leave you for now with two lovely and very kind posts from my friends:

Anthony Pacheco's funny blog post on why can't that Corby character write faster; and

Stephanie Thornton's review of The Pericles Commission.

In the acknowledgements for book 2 (which I've already written) I said right at the start that I don't feel like an author so much as the point man for Team Gary.  So many people have helped me, out of the goodness of their hearts, both in the past and during this tour.  It's simply incredible.  Thank you all!

Mysterious Galaxy

I owe Maryelizabeth Hart a big thank you, because she arranged for me to appear at Mysterious Galaxy in San Diego.

So I walk in the door and the first thing I see is:

That's Ben, who helps run the store, and oh, there are some books on the wall.

Mysterious Galaxy has an interesting event system. They invite two authors at a time to do a joint talk-cum-Q&A. My partner in crime was PL Gaus, who writes murder mysteries set among the Amish community. Not a hotbed of homicidal maniacs, one might think, but it's a fascinating vehicle to explore the culture. We discovered two things in common: we're both published in Australia by Penguin, and we both come from science backgrounds with nary an English qualification between us. Other than that we couldn't be more different. Mr Gaus wears immaculate suits and speaks very deliberately. I wear the leather jacket and my speech is anything but deliberate. The audience was small but interested, including a couple who wandered into the store halfway through and stayed to listen.

One couple had come because they'd read the review of Pericles Commission. Afterwards they bought a copy. It's an interesting reflection on the power of reviews. Review sections seem to be disappearing from newspapers, but it seems to me there's a real desire for informed reviews.

These two below are the best tour guides any debut author could have. In the middle is our very own LT Host. Her avatar usually shows her kissing a giraffe, but a only few weeks ago she upgraded to a husband. That's Scott on the left. LT wins particular credit for getting us to the book talk in time, in the face of horrendous traffic.

The book stack is what they had left after preorders and books sold on the night. I think they might be down to ten now.

Garos / Garum: the ketchup of the ancient world

During our Bouchercon panel, Lindsey Davis referred to a popular ancient fish sauce called garum, and I quickly pointed out it was invented by the Greeks, who called it garos. I've been asked about it so many times since that I thought I'd repost a slightly edited version of an article I wrote in November 2008.

The Greeks had a salty fish sauce called garos (γαροσ). It was incredibly popular in both Greece and (much later) Rome, where people would add it to almost anything. It was, in effect, the ketchup of the ancient world. (Nico's favorite food is eel in garos sauce.)

Since there was a fish called garos, or garon, in Greek, it's a fair bet the sauce was made mostly from that. I've been unable to discover what fish garos actually was. Not to worry, I can fudge it in my stories (but don't let Keith and Kathleen know that...I'll tell them I'm using the Greek word for authentic atmosphere).

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

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

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

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

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

Seattle Mystery Bookshop

Such a cool place. Seattle Mystery Bookshop is run by JB and Fran, but I have a feeling Amber, who's only been there for two months, is the one in charge. She made sure I signed every book the right way: some with signatures, some signatures + dates, some signatures + dates + special messages. The link on the shop name goes to a blog entry I wrote for them on the day.

Something wonderful happened at Seattle Mystery Bookshop. Actually, several wonderful things happened, but let me start with this:

From left to right: Roger Scrafford, Gary Corby, Anthony Pacheco and Susanna Fraser. Writers all. As Susanna later commented, it was the first time she'd been in a group of writers where the ladies were outnumbered. These kind people gave up their lunch times to come say hi. My reaction: we meet at last! They're the first of my net friends I've ever met, outside of Bouchercon, which doesn't count (sort of) because Bouchercon is full of people by definition. These nice souls actually volunteered to meet me. What we talked about was, inevitably, writing.

If you stand in the street outside the store at the moment, this is what you see:

The first time I've seen my book in a store window. OMG, I'm in the same display as Don Winslow and Steven Saylor. Inside on the shelves, Pericles Commission keeps further impressive company:

By sheer coincidence, a TV crew arrived that afternoon to do an item in the store. They were impressed a real live author was there. I was impressed a real live TV crew was there. Lowell Deo is the presenter for CityStream on Seattle Channel 21. He's an incredibly nice guy, which I would have said even if he hadn't chosen to open and close the segment with Pericles Commission. He opened with a shot of him reading it, and he closed by buying it from Fran.

The pictures below: Camera Guy (I'm embarrassed to admit I don't recall his name...please forgive me if you're reading this) shoots Fran and JB in the store. Then Lowell and Cam Guy, when I asked if I could take a picture of them:

As I said, really nice guys. I think the segment will be on 7pm Thursday next week, but I'm not sure. Then apparently it'll be online. More news as it comes to hand on that.

When the day was over, Fran and her partner absolutely insisted on driving me to my hotel for the night before I flew out. On the way, they absolutely insisted on taking me out to dinner. I couldn't describe the evening better than Fran herself in her blog Fran's ramblings, except she is being far too kind to me. A huge thank you to Lillian and Fran for their kindness. The bright pink backpack Fran mentions is real, btw; it belongs to my daughter Catriona but it's the largest we have and I desperately needed it on the trip to carry books.

I've noticed my blog posts at the moment are totally book-centered and have nothing to do with history. That's because in the middle of a book tour there's no time to think about anything else. How anyone manages to write and tour at the same time is beyond me. What you're getting is a beginner's reaction to stores selling a first book. Normal programming will resume in a few weeks, after I've got home and recovered from the nervous breakdown.

Preordering from stores, and personalizing books

I'm such a beginner at this that I didn't realize it happened, but it's possible to get a signed, dedicated copy of a book by ordering from a store where the author's about to do an event. I discovered this at "M" is for Mystery, when Ed the owner brought out a pile of books already ordered and paid for. Some had post-it notes inside with what the nice buyer wanted written in addition to a signature. After I signed and dedicated, the books were shipped to their new homes.

It occurs to me if anyone would like a copy of Pericles Commission with a personal dedication, it's possible to do it by ordering from one of the places I'm about to be. Obviously it's more expensive than BookDepository or Amazon, but you'll get it faster it seems, and there's the dubious extra value of me having signed and dedicated it. If anyone does this (or has), let me know if you like, so I can recognize you in the stack.

If this is interesting, here are the phone numbers of the stores. (I hesitate to suggest this because it looks like pure advertising, but there might be value for some.)

Seattle Mystery Bookshop (on tomorrow, you better hurry for this one) 206 587 5737

Mysterious Galaxy in San Diego. 858 268 4747

Aunt Agatha's in Ann Arbor: 734 769 1114

Centuries and Sleuths in Chicago. 708 771 7243

Here's a question for you: I've thought about printing book plates, so that anyone can ask me to sign a book ordered from anywhere at any price. Just email me the dedication you want and I'll post you the plate to stick in your copy. I'd have to charge the postage cost, or I'd lose money on every sale, but it has the advantage of letting me sign and dedicate a book to anyone, anywhere. Would this be interesting to people?

The coolest panel ever

Yesterday morning I was on a panel with Steven Saylor, Lindsey Davis, and John Maddox Roberts.  So that's the Three Gods of ancient mysteries,  Also three Romans and a Greek.

And it was an absolute blast.  Ever since, I've been begging our editor Keith Kahla to do it again some time.  The session was standing room only, including my own dear cheer squad.  Thanks guys!  I will modestly admit I acquitted myself well.  My previous public speaking experience helped a lot.  To anyone who thinks or hopes to be in the same situation in the future: get some practise well beforehand.

I wish I could give you a verbatim script of everything that was said, because a lot of it was fascinating stuff.  I'll post photos at some point in the future; I have some but they need to be reworked and my travel machine is not the tool for the job.  At some point in the future I'll collate some of the bits that particularly struck me.

I didn't realize until later, and John confirmed, that despite all three publishing great stories for decades, this was the first time ever that Steven, Lindsey and John have been on the same stage at the same time. An historic moment.

People came up to say hello to me afterwards, complete strangers who wished me well, which I thought was very kind.  Then it was down to the book room.  All the authors sign for half an hour or so after their talks.  (Janet did an agent talk earlier in the week, and lo and behold they assigned her a signing space afterwards, for her non-existent book.)

Signings for newbies are a fraught exercise due to the tendency  to be assigned spaces next to Lee Child or Charlaine Harris.  Their queue snakes out the room and around the building while you sit there playing with a pen.  I was pleasantly surprised!  People not only bought the book and brought it over, but at one point I even had...OMG...a queue.  This is debut author heaven.  There were three books left in the store when the signing finished.  They disappeared that afternoon.  So I sold out!  There's no question in my mind what made that happen: the high quality of the panel session that came before.

You heard it here first

So Thursday night was the Macavity awards at Bouchercon, and winner of the Sue Feder Historical Mystery Award is Rebecca Cantrell, for A Trace of Smoke!

I'd just like to point out that in December '09, I listed it as one of the top two books of the year.

Yay for Rebecca!

Gary survives his first book event!

I have done a book event, and lived to tell the tale.

You couldn't find a friendlier, more welcoming place to start your book touring career than "M" is for Mystery.  Ed Kaufman owns the shop, and he and his wife Jeannie were fantastic about having a dubious debut author on the premises.

I don't seem to have got it too badly wrong, the only feedback later being to speak more slowly.  Which I instantly told my daughter Catriona in email because she's an excellent debater, except I keep telling her to speak more slowly.  Clearly it's a genetic fault.

Ed had a whole row of books lined up that were prepaids, meaning people had already ordered them from afar and they needed to be mailed off once signed.  Now logically, this makes perfect sense.  When one publishes a book, it's generally because you want to sell it.  But I was signing books for people I'd never met, and this is an odd sensation the first time you do it.  One book was to be dedicated, "To Cindy."  Which made me wonder about Cindy.  Who is she?  Why did she choose my book?  Will she enjoy it?  If you're reading this, Cindy, do let me know!

Yes, I'm getting metaphysical here, but it really is one of the oddest sensations, and very, very cool.

The first person ever to ask for a signed copy of a book I wrote was a lovely gentleman named Charles.  So I instantly asked for his autograph, which caused some slight confusion because the process is supposed to work in the opposite direction.  Here is Charles (my first signing!), Ed (owner of "M" is for Mystery), and me.  A normal day for most people, but an historic event for me.

'Twas the night before pub date...

Actually, it's the night before the night before pub date. But I get on a big plane tomorrow to fly to Bouchercon, and I don't imagine I'll have a chance to post between now and then, so this is the last thing I will write as an unpublished author.

There would be no book, no series, no sale, and certainly no success, except that my wife told me I should go for it. And then encouraged me while I wrote. And read every word. And corrected my punctuation. And corrected proofs. And put up with me while I spent long hours in the office. And was brave enough to stick with it even when a few of her friends suggested this was a dubious way for one's husband to behave.

Which is why the dedication page has only these two words:


If you have a look at the top of this page, you'll see there's a new tab called Events.  No prizes for guessing what it's about.

This is my rendition of the same information on the GoodReads site.

If by chance you can make it to one of these, I would really love to meet you.  I've made so many friends over the net, it'd be great to actually use something other than a keyboard to communicate.

Kathleen Conn: amazing editor

In my continuing series of people holding bits and pieces of Pericles Commission, I bring you the talented young editor Kathleen Conn, who holds the entire book, hot off off the bindery.

Thanks Kathleen, it can't be easy to deal with a complete newbie.  You've been fantastic for a debut author!

A review from Robin Agnew of Aunt Agatha's

Aunt Agatha's is a specialist mystery bookstore in Ann Arbor. If you slide your eyes slightly to the right, to the events list, you'll see I'm appearing at Aunt Agatha's on the 26th October at 7pm. Anyone who can make it would be welcome!

Aunt Agatha's is run by the incredibly friendly and helpful Robin Agnew and her husband Jamie. Robin blogs at Hey, There's A Dead Guy In The Living Room, which I recommend for anyone who likes mysteries. She's also very much into ice skating, and since my wife Helen and I do ice dance (and Helen makes ice skating costumes), I think I know what we'll be talking about.

Robin's written a lovely review of The Pericles Commission, which I was overjoyed to read, considering it comes from someone who's read and sold thousands of mysteries!

Anneke and Bill: beta readers extraordinaire

So as we get close to The Pericles Commission finally going on sale, this is the end of a long, long journey not only for me, but for everyone who's helped me.

These two shifty-looking characters lurking in a dark corner have held the secret of who killed Ephialtes since 2007. That's when they first read the manuscript and gave me advice and asked the tough questions that had to be answered.

Anneke Klein is Dutch. English is her second language, which doesn't stop her from being the most amazing beta reader. I tell her she should be doing manuscript assessment for a living, she's that good. Anneke asks all the tough plot, theme and character questions that I really wish no one had noticed. To this day I have not published or sold a word of fiction that she did not see first. Which means yes, she's already been through The Ionia Sanction and she asked all the tough questions that made me rewrite parts. She also has one astonishing talent: if Anneke likes a story, it sells; if she doesn't like it, it doesn't sell. I've never known her to be wrong, and I have unsold short stories lying about to prove it. These days Anneke runs the flash fiction site Rammenas. Her own first fiction publication will be a short story in an upcoming anthology.

Bill Kirton is a master of craft. His critiques are always so depressingly right, and so crystal clear that you'd almost think he taught writing as a profession. Which, actually, he did. Bill taught creative writing and French literature at Aberdeen University. He's also been an actor, a playwright, and a BBC scriptwriter. His novels are The Figurehead (an historical mystery!), The Darkness, Material Evidence and Rough Justice. The last three are police procedurals starring DCI Jack Carston. (I was dead sure I had Material Evidence solved. I was wrong.)

Thanks guys. It wouldn't be a book without you.

Pericles Commission: the cover version

About two years ago, the brilliant young assistant to a certain literary agent pulled my query from the slush pile. She thought it looked okay.

Now here she is, Joanna Stampfel-Volpe, holding the cover of the end result.

Thanks Jo!

When Historical “Facts” Aren’t So Factual

Vicky Alvear Shecter is far too modest. Vicky's a regular commenter on this blog, but I'm sure lots of people don't realize she's the author of two fantastic biographies. Alexander the Great Rocks the World and, only recently, Cleopatra Rules! The Amazing Life of the Original Teen Queen. Her first young adult novel, Cleopatra's Moon, is out in summer 2011. When it comes to ancient history she knows what she's talking about. Vicky's a docent at the Michael C. Carlos Museum of Antiquities at Emory University in Atlanta. So I imposed on her to do a guest post, and here it is.

Speaking to high school kids at a Junior Classical League conference last year, I offered a word association game. When I got to “Cleopatra,” I got:


“Wow,” I remember thinking. “They went from queenly to unseemly in a matter of seconds!” The spirit of Augustus Caesar must have danced a little jig of victory because 2,000 years after his propaganda war against the queen, we are still maligning her with insults related to her ultimately unknowable (and irrelevant) sex life.

What’s worse, little has changed since Augustus worked up Romans into a frenzy of outrage, fear and loathing for a powerful woman.

“Tell me,” I asked the teens. “What’s the first word you use to disparage a girl you don’t like or that you find threatening.”

“Slut,” they admitted a bit sheepishly. “Whore.”

Augustus’ model for taking a strong woman down, it seems, went deeper than we could even imagine. We are still acting it out today.

And yet, when it comes to Cleopatra, the facts don’t jibe. Most modern scholars now believe that the queen had only two relationships her whole life—both with Roman leaders with whom she politically aligned for the preservation of her crown and kingdom: Julius Caesar and Marc Antony.

All agree that Augustus masterminded a smear campaign against the queen of Egypt so thorough, we still automatically accept it today. We picture her as a seductress instead of as a brilliant politician who kept her kingdom from being eaten alive by Rome for twenty years. We imagine her as a femme fatale instead of the devoted mother of four children. That’s right., four.

In writing Cleopatra Rules! The Amazing Life of the Original Teen Queen—I’ve learned two important lessons:

1) Don’t automatically accept ancient “facts” as facts, and

2) Do not, under any circumstances, ask teens to play a word association game!

A note on names

Most modern names come from the Bible, a book which had yet to be written when my hero Nico walked the mean streets of Classical Athens. Quite a few people have asked me what's the "right" way to say the ancient names. I'll be getting hate mail from classical linguists for this, but the truth is, there is no right way. I hope you'll pick whatever sounds happiest to you, and have fun reading the story.

For those who'd like a little more guidance, try this.

The Greeks had only a single name each, which we would think of as a first name. Greek names were usually two everyday words stuck together to form a meaning. A lot of the trick to saying them is to spot the word boundary, then say and think of them as two words.

Let me use as an example someone you've heard of: Cleopatra.

Cleopatra may have been Queen of Egypt, but her name was very typically Greek. If you can cope with Cleopatra, you can cope with any Greek name. Cleopatra is cleo + patra. Cleo means glory, and patra means of the father. Glory of the father. The ending in –a makes it a feminine name.

Boy names end in –os, –us, –es, –is, or –on. Girl names end in –a, –ia, or –ache. You can switch the sex of any name by switching the ending.

With that in mind, here are two of my major characters with interesting names:

Nicolaos is nico + laos. Nico is a variant of Nike, which means victory. Laos is of the people. Victory of the people. Nicolaos is a common name in Greece to this day, and is quite obviously the origin of the western Nicholas. There was a St Nicolaos who is better known as Santa Claus. The Claus part comes from the –colaos of Nicolaos. Nico is our modern Nick.

Diotima is dios + tima. The Greek Dios is the Latin Deus, which if you've ever heard a Latin prayer in church you will know means God. Tima means honored. Diotima is honored by God. A suitable name for any priestess.

As a graduation exercise, here's a random name that looks tough but is amazingly simple:

Archeptolis. Archeptolis is almost the same as Architect, a very common English word. Say Architect. Now take off the tect and add on a tolis. Done!

The pt in Greek always sounds like a plain old English t. Every modern child knows the flying reptile called a pterodactyl. It's the same thing.

The Greek ch can always be said like an Engish k (as in architect). But if you want to go for slightly more authenticity, try saying it like the ch in Scottish or German, which is to say like a k while choking on a fishbone.

Author notes in historical mysteries, and the spoiler problem

I love writing author notes. In fact I love it so much that I wrote 33 pages for The Ionia Sanction and had to do some extreme cutting to get it back to a mere 17 pages. Don't panic, the author note for The Pericles Commission comes in at a svelte 8 pages.

But there's a slight problem with the author note for any historical mystery. Because it's, you know, a mystery, where someone got killed, and someone did it, and it's pretty much impossible to write about the history behind a real murder without giving away some plot.

It never occurred to me, the editor, the executive editor, or anyone else, that the author note might need a spoiler alert, because it's right at the back of the book. Until no less than Steven Saylor himself pointed it out when he read the ARC. It turns out he and others like to turn to the back and read the author note first.

So at the last minute we inserted an alert in the first paragraph of the author note (at least, I hope we did...I myself haven't seen the final book yet). But the ARC doesn't have an alert, so if you're holding the ARC, don't read the author note until you've read the book!

A lovely review by Irene Hahn

Irene runs the Roman History Reading Group. It's a group of like-minded people who gather online every two weeks to talk about modern books set in ancient Rome, and also ancient Roman books. They let me hang out with them even though I come from the Greek end of town. Anyone interested in this stuff would be very welcome to join in.

Irene's become a minor history celebrity since she started the reading group, to the point that publishers are sending her books to review. One of them, at my slight prodding, was The Pericles Commission.

Gary at Bouchercon: and on a panel

Bouchercon is a huge mystery fan conference held each year in a different city. This year it's in San Francisco, from the 14th to the 17th October.

If you're at Bouchercon, or anywhere nearby, then I would really, really, really like to catch up. (No, really!)

If you're attending Bouchercon, then you get the added bonus of watching me make a total fool of myself in front of the fans. I'm on one of the panel discussions.

My Bouchercon panel consists of Keith Kahla (moderator), Steven Saylor, Lindsey Davis, John Maddox Roberts, and little debut-author me.

I'll be a dwarf among giants, but I'm looking forward to this!