So you want to write an ancient mystery: pick your time and place

When in Rome, do as the Romans do...murder someone.

If you're reading an ancient mystery at the moment, then odds are it's set in Rome or Roman Britain.

Steven Saylor and John Roberts both write in exactly the same years of Late Republican Rome. Not only that, they use the same historical characters and sometimes even the same events. Both have a novel centred around the Catiline Conspiracy. This has its cool aspects. You can read side by side Saylor's Catilina's Riddle, and Robert's SPQR 2: The Catiline Conspiracy, and get totally different viewpoints from two great writers of exactly the same historical event.

I happen to know (because John told's that for a name drop?) that Saylor and Roberts have a gentleman's agreement not to read each other's books. I can't imagine anyone confusing the voice of Saylor for Roberts, or vice versa, but I suppose they're being understandably cautious.

Caroline Lawrence, Lindsey Davis and Simon Scarrow all write in the period of Vespasian and Titus. In fact Vespasian and Titus appear in all three series.

This means five of the biggest names in historical mysteries are focussed on two precise periods, separated by less than 120 years, whose total duration is less than 40 years, even though there are 3,000 years of ancient history to choose from. This is remarkable.

It's probably no accident that these two periods bracket the the end of the Roman Republic, to the end of the first Roman dynasty, the Julio-Claudian line founded by Julius Caesar and Augustus. In between, David Wishart has his Marcus Corvinus working crime in the reign of Tiberius, Robert Harris has a thriller in Pompeii, and PC Doherty has Roman mysteries and also wrote Domina, the best novel of Agrippina, the mother of Nero, which you're ever likely to read. There are lots of other mysteries set in the time of the Julio-Claudians, but I'd go mad if I tried to list them all, and I don't know them as well as these authors.

If your ancient mystery isn't set in Rome, then chances are very good it's in Roman Britain. Kelli Stanley, Ruth Downie, Rosemary Rowe and Jane Finnis for starters. Roman Britain is huge for mysterious deaths. (And I can only assume the surviving characters all settled in what later became Midsomer County, where their descendants carry on their homicidal habits to this day).

I think it'd be fair to say that Rome + Roman Britain covers 80% or more of all ancient mysteries, and I'm being deliberately conservative because I don't have exact numbers. I suspect the true percentage is 95%+.

If you're not in Rome or Roman Britain, then you might be in Ancient Egypt with PC Doherty, who has a successful Egyptian mystery series starring Amerokte, the Chief Judge of the Temple of Ma'at, or Anton Gill's Huy the Scribe.

After Egypt comes Ancient Greece with Margaret Doody's Stephanos at work during the rise of Macedon, and PC Doherty (again...the man's amazing) with his mysteries set in the time of Alexander.

It's astonishing how concentrated the historical mysteries are. Why these particular periods? The same question applies to later times: Mediaeval mysteries occur mostly in the abbeys and palaces of Britain. Victorian mysteries are mostly in London.

Where are the mysteries of, for example, Carthage? Or Phoenicea? Or India? Robert Hans Van Gulik wrote an excellent series of mysteries set in mediaeval China, starring Judge Dee. Technically mediaeval because the stories are 7th century, but they actually have an ancient feel to them because we tend to associate all things Mediaeval with the Church and Europe, which is a cultural bias. Yet his fine series seems to be sady under-appreciated. I think it's because English readers in the western world have trouble seeing what Mediaeval China means to them.

I've pondered long and hard about this. I think authors are writing, and people are reading, the periods which people can easily see had a major influence on their modern lives. This explains why Roman Britain is huge but not, for example, Roman Hungary. Many historical readers live in the UK, or are descended from there. When they read a mystery of Roman Britain, they read about their ancestors. The doings of the Roman Empire affects us to this day. When we read of Rome, even if we're not Italian, we can say to themselves, "Yes, the past was like this, and that's why my modern world is as it is." Every popular period for historical mysteries has a foundation point for some major aspect of modern western life.

If I have this right then the Golden Age of Athens should be screaming out for a mystery series. It's when western civilisation was founded, after all. I will be testing this theory in October when The Pericles Commission goes on sale. I'm confident I have it right.

Conclusion: You can't go wrong if you set your ancient mystery in Rome or Roman Britain, but for all our sakes, I beg you consider the other 3,000 years of ancient history and a whole globe of cultures. Go out of your way to show the reader why they should care not just about the story and the characters, but also the time they live in.

So you want to write an ancient mystery...

Historical mysteries are a sub-genre. There's at least one historical mystery for almost every time and place you care to name, but readers very clearly have their favourite periods. Mediaeval mysteries are huge, thanks I'm sure to the early excellence of Ellis Peters. The Victorian period is big, and so too are Ancients. Mediaeval, Victorian and Ancient mysteries have such a focus from readers and authors that each could fairly be called a distinct sub-sub-genre.

This is the first in a series of blog posts in which I'll point out some of the elements unique, or at least common, to my own little piece of the world: Ancient Mysteries. This is all very much Gary's view, so your mileage will definitely vary, but I at least have the advantage of having read some of what's out there, and I dare say a bit more than most.

I'll begin with some posts about existing ancient mystery authors, because the most important advice I can give you is this: read the authors who've gone before. If you're interested in ancient mysteries then you really want to rush out and read every author I mention.

Within ancient mysteries the big two are Steven Saylor and Lindsey Davis. I'm fairly sure the sales records and general popularity would back me up on that. Saylor seems to be better known in the US (he's American). Davis appears to be better known in the UK (she's British). To these two I'll add John Maddox Roberts. These three were the first major ancient mystery authors.

I've read all three for many years, but when I began to write an ancient mystery myself, I studied all three very closely. What did they have in common? How were they different? What worked? What didn't work?

Two common things really stand out. Firstly, they all write Roman mysteries! In fact Rome became so popular with later authors that it's almost a sub-sub-sub-genre. (I'll stop with the subs now).

But the common point I'll concentrate on here is this: they all use fundamentally the same hero/heroine/patron character model.

Steven Saylor's hero is Gordianus the Finder, the only honest man in Rome. His wife is a rather strong willed slave named Bethesda. Gordianus finds himself working for an advocate by the name of Cicero.

Lindsey Davis' hero is Marcus Didius Falco, the most hard done by gumshoe in ancient Rome. He runs into a strong-willed aristocratic lady called Helena Justina. Falco finds himself working for the upstart new Emperor Vespasian.

John Robert's hero is Decius Caecilius Metellus, an aristocratic, young, insatiably curious troublemaker. He marries eventually a lady called Julia, who happens to be a relative of Julius Caesar.

Are you seeing a pattern here? The male hero. The strong female assisting. The patron.

People read historical mysteries as much for the joy of exploring the exotic time and place as for the mystery. For the ancient past in particular, so remote and exotic to us today, you can't get a complete experience without both the male and the female view of ancient life. Also it's the nature of the ancient times that men generally had greater social freedom. So a male lead with a strong female is not only the path of least resistance, but the one which fits most naturally into what readers will likely enjoy. The patron is a natural component too: someone to deliver a diverse range of missions, give entrée to high places and explain background which a highly placed man of the times would know and which the reader needs. (Patrons in ancient mysteries tend to be the princes of exposition).

I think of this as the Standard Model for ancient mysteries.

Different authors give different weight to the character types, but certainly the Standard Model prevails across many authors. Perhaps even most. For example Rosemary Rowe's excellent mysteries in Roman Britain feature a Celtic freedman called Libertus, his wife Gwellia, and a magistrate Marcus Septimus.

Which isn't to say everyone follows the model. Jane Finnis has her clever heroine Aurelia Marcella running an inn on her own in Roman Britain, plus doing the investigations. (Jane, by the way, is only partially sighted, and has to work with a high contrast screen and an automatic reader, but still manages to write in such a technically difficult field. When I learned that I swore I'd never again whine about my own writing problems.) Though he eventually marries, Margaret Doody's Stephanos is essentially an all-male affair, with Aristotle providing the brains. Caroline Lawrence has for her children's and YA Roman mysteries a girl called Flavia Gemina and her friends. The series opens with Flavia as a young girl and ends with her marriage. Caroline might actually be the most successful ancient mystery author ever, considering the number of her books in school libraries and the highly successful TV series made of them. She totally owns the entire field of YA ancient mysteries. (Which would make her a, I must stop this).

So my view is: the Standard Model evolved independently with many authors for a good reason. You don't have to use it, but you'd want to at least consider it.

I've been careful as I can to avoid dropping spoilers in this and subsequent posts to avoid damaging the fun for anyone who hasn't read the stories yet. Please avoid spoilers if possible in any comments you make too please!

Write something that people want to buy

I've had a couple of variations of this conversation recently, so I thought I'd make a general comment...

I reckon literary agents get very hard done by, especially when it comes to harsh comments about what they choose to represent, or not, as the case may be.

Ability to sell an author's book to the publisher is a huge issue! People forget that agents have mortgages to pay and children to feed. They'll be homeless with hungry children crying for food if they don't sell their clients' books.

Certainly we must all write the book that's in us -- we could hardly write someone else's book -- but it has to be within the envelope of what other people want to read, which is what the big stores will stock, which is what the stores will order from the publishers, which is what the publishers will buy from the agents, which is what the agents will offer to represent.

If I were a literary agent, I'd be a whole lot more ruthless and demanding than the bunch doing the job now. (And the Publishing Gods preserve me from such a fate.)

If you were an agent, and your next meal depended on selling the books you chose to represent, then what would you do?

Art for art's sake, money for God's sake

In these days of mass copying of music, and probably of ebooks too in the future, all of which means artists work for nothing, I thought this epigram by a chap called Martial was somewhat apropos. He's from the Roman Empire, 80AD.

Martial was hugely popular in his own day, and very, very rude. (Those two points are probably closely connected). This is from Book 5, Number 16. He had this to say on the value of his popularity:

That I, who could write what is serious, prefer to write what is entertaining, you, friendly reader, are the cause, who read and hum my poems all over Rome; but you do not know what your love costs me.

For were I willing to appear for the Temple of the scythe-bearing Thunderer [i.e. join the treasury department], or to sell my words to anxious men accused [i.e. become a lawyer], then many a sailor whom I'd defended would send me jars of Spanish wine, and the lap of my toga would be stained with all sorts of coin.

But, as it is, my book is merely a guest and sharer of revels, and my page affords amusement for which I receive no pay. Not even the poets of old were content with empty praise; in those days the smallest present made to the Immortal Bard [Virgil, not Shakespeare!] was Alexis [a slave once given to Virgil].

"You write charmingly," you say, "and we will reward you with praises for ever."

Do you pretend not to understand my hints? You will, I suspect, make me a lawyer.

How very interesting that almost 2,000 years ago, people used intellectual property without paying for it, and then expected to make it up by saying nice things about the unpaid artist. Notice how he says things were better in the good old days!

This post was written while listening to Art For Art's Sake, by 10cc.

Wineries are like writers

If I've been silent for the last week, it's for a good reason: I've been drinking copious amounts of alcohol.

But it's all in a good way. Really truly! Nothing but the finest of fine red wine. My wife the Goddess of Punctuation and I were invited, along with 250 other lucky souls, to the 25th birthday of Charles Melton Wines, which is an ultra-high quality winery in the Barossa Valley in South Australia, an hour's drive north of Adelaide, which is a 2 hour flight from where we live in Sydney. So a fair way from home. In times BC (Before Children) we used to go winery visiting once or twice a year, but this trip was only the second time in 11 years that we had both been away from our girls. The girls were fine with it; I had separation anxiety.

Charles Melton is best known for the amazing wine called Nine Popes, which is made from predominantly Grenache grapes, with some Shiraz and Mourvedre thrown in.

The Barossa has a reputation for producing very high quality wine. Penfolds Grange, which is widely considered one of the best wines in the world, is made just up the road, and Nine Popes does for Grenache grapes what Grange does for Shiraz.

I won't bore you with piles of wine talk (I hope) but there were two highlights I must mention.

The first was an international tasting. Charlie brought in 12 wines from all over the world for a comparative tasting of four grape types made in totally different ways in different places. Slovakia, France, Italy and the US were on the list. I'll particularly mention the 2005 Seghesio Old Vine Zinfandel from California, the 2008 Christian Morery Vallions Chablis from France, and the 2008 Aston Hills Reserve Pinot from Australia. All amazing wines. And Charlie imported all these for us to taste at his own expense. Every drop of wine all we 250 guests drank over three days, both the imports and his own, plus some amazing food was given us by the winery as a massive thank you for our support over the years.

The second highlight was the vertical tasting of every vintage of every wine Charles Melton ever made. He had Nine Popes on the table from 1996 to 2008, and it was an amazing experience to taste one after the other. You could even taste the difference between the normal sized bottle and the magnum of exactly the same wine, and believe me, the difference was very clear. Same goes for his Shiraz wines and his Rosé.

The Melton Rosé by the way is named for his wife: Rose of Virginia. He also has a Shiraz called The Father In Law. There's no law says fine wine can't have a sense of humour.

Charlie talked about how he was running a small business, which he said to us in a huge shed surrounded by large vats of fermenting wine. If that's his definition of a small business, he should try writing.

Here's the Goddess of Punctuation. I think she might be checking one of the Grenache vines for missing semi-colons.

Now all this caused me to think a lot about how wineries are like writers. (Yes, drinking nothing but lots of fine wine for three days straight inspires thoughts like this.) But really, the similarities are there:

Tastes differ. In wine as in books. No one can satisfy every taste.

When people like you, they come back for more.

It doesn't take too many bad vintages (or books) to destroy your following and wipe you out.

I don't know about where you are, but here in Australia there are a zillion small wineries, all producing good stuff, and how's one winery to get noticed over another?
It's a craft and an art.

It makes people happy.

So what lessons can I learn as a writer from how Charles Melton made it as a vintner? I don't know what he thinks, but here's the way I see it:

Go for quality. The highest quality you can reach.

Quality + Hard Work + Outstanding Service = Vast Success

Be generous to your supporters. Charlie funded a party for 250 people with world class wines. He now has 250 rusted on customers who will love him forever. (But I thank God I'm not his accountant).

Have fun. At the final dinner, the staff got a standing ovation. They deserved every bit of it and more. The smiles never left their faces. They put up with us all. They did the near impossible and even looked happy doing it.

Hello my friend, you have won…

Every now and then, after being prodded by Anneke thirty or forty times, I produce something for the flash fiction site Rammenas.

Last week I sent in a piece called Hello my friend, you have won… which I won't reproduce here because it's on the link.

The story's fundamentally a single idea presented as a tiny scene with a bit of a twist. I didn't think this piece was anything particular, but it ended up listed on Be The Story as one among 7 favourites, so I have to assume it's better than I thought. Anyway, if you'd like to see something from me which has absolutely nothing to do with ancient history, then have a look!

Rammenas by the way is worth a read if you enjoy flash fiction. And if you like to write it I'm sure Anneke would enjoy hearing from you. Among the authors on Rammenas is our very own Scary Azeri, who is much better at flash fiction than yours truly.

Ghosts of Ancient Greece

The Greeks were one of the very few people throughout history to not have a strong belief in ghosts. In fact I'd be willing to bet there are more people in the western world per capita today who believe in ghosts, than there were in Athens in 460BC.

I put this down to the Greek belief that the world was fundamentally explainable by rational means. That very modern viewpoint was totally at odds with their own religion, and the deeper thinkers of the time were painfully aware of the paradox. Yet nevertheless, give a Classical Greek a problem, and he would instinctively look for a rational solution. This rather suits me as a mystery writer.

The unusual converse however, is that although people didn't believe the dead visited the living, they did believe the living could visit the dead. Greek mythology is full of people just popping down to Hades for a quick chat with the shade of someone long gone. Theseus, Heracles, Odysseus, Aeneas and Orpheus all take the plunge and return to tell the tale.

The important thing to a Greek was to make sure the spirits of the dead made it into Hades, after which they weren't coming back. This was largely arranged via the funeral ritual.

Here is Nicolaos, visiting the body of his first ever investigation:
I stepped forward to the body, as was required. An urn of ashes had been placed there. I dipped my hands in, raised them high above me, and poured a handful of ash over my head, felt the soft falling touch against my face, and the harsh burnt smell in my nose. Looking down I could see the pattern of black and white specks on the floor all about me, where every visitor before had done the same thing.
I cried and lamented for the shortest time I decently could, inspecting the body all the while. Ephialtes had been dressed in a white shroud. A honey cake rested by his right hand. A strip of linen had been tied around his chin to the top of his head, to keep his mouth shut, by which I knew the coin, an obol, had already been placed in his mouth.
Ephialtes would give the coin to Charon the Ferryman, who would carry him across the Acheron, the river of woe, on his way to Hades. He would cross the river Cocytus of lamentation, and the Phlegethon of fire, before coming to the river Lethe, where he would dip in his hand and drink of the waters, and so lose all memories of his earthly life, finally coming to the Styx, the river of hate, after which he would be in Hades, and remain there for all eternity.
You'll notice I managed to get in the basic geography of Hades, as it was generally agreed. This is pure exposition, so I was probably a bit naughty, but I thought it was kind of cool to sneak it in. Nico doesn't mention it here, but the body when it lay in state awaiting burial was always placed with its feet towards the door, which was to prevent the dead man's psyche from wandering off.

The psyche was the closest thing the Greeks had to a ghost. It was possible, if burial hadn't been performed properly, for the psyche to hang around. But this was extremely rare because the Greeks had enormous respect for the dead, even of their enemies. (Which is what made Achilles' mistreatment of Hector's body so very shocking.)

A lot of people think the coin placed in the mouth was to pay to get over the river Styx. Nope. Hades had many rivers, and the first of them was the Acheron. That's the one Charon the Ferryman carries you over. The Styx was the end of the line; when you crossed it, you'd reached Hades.

The coin placed in the mouth was an obol, not a drachma. Six obols make a single drachma, which was the average daily wage in Athens. So an obol represents about 2 hours of work and is probably what a for-real ferry crossing might have cost at the time. It also meant anyone could afford to get their loved ones to their eternal home.

There was no concept in Greek religion of being judged after death. Good or bad, you ended up at the same place.

Where I'm at with the series...

Two different people asked me today, so here's where I'm up to:

The Pericles Commission is on sale October 12 in the US. The busy elves at the printers are probably making copies even as you read this. Though I honestly don't know for sure. That's a job for the excellent people at St Martin's Press. My next involvement is when I turn up in the US for a book tour in last half of October. Which I'm very much looking forward to!

Book 2, title not yet decided, is with the editors. In the fullness of time I'll receive an editorial letter for book 2. The editorial letter is written by Editor Kathleen and is full of great suggestions for improving the book. It will release probably October next year. Some time between now and then we have to think of a title.

Book 3's title will be Sacred Games if I have anything to do with it. It's set at the Olympics of 460BC. Tonight I hit 70,000 words of first draft, and it's feeling strong. It will release probably October year after next.

Euripides and the deus ex machina

Deus ex machina means, literally, God from the machine, and it's a curiously Latin term for what is very much a Greek concept.

To portray the Gods in plays, the Classical Greek actors were lifted in the air using a huge lever system. This is precisely the deus ex machina: an actor portraying a god, hanging from a lever machine.

Of course the audience could see the rope and the lever, but hey, this was early days for special effects. The audience had the imagination to blot out the mechanics. They wouldn't be able to guess which god they saw, but the actor would declare his identity in his opening lines, and the play carried on.

Mary Renault uses this to good effect in The Mask of Apollo. In that story, her hero is an actor playing a god. The audience gasps and the actor looks up to see what the audience can see: the rope is frayed and will snap at any moment and he'll fall to his death. So he does what any good actor would do: he carries on with his lines.

The mechanics of the system worked fine, but there was a problem with the way the Classical playwrights used their divine characters. The gods tended to appear at the opening to set the scene, then they'd disappear, only to suddenly return right at the end and close down the story before it could reach a climax. It's like the writers included too much plot and simply chopped the story off using divine intervention when time ran out.

The technique was so notorious that deus ex machina has come to mean anything which shuts down a story suddenly and without warning, in a completely arbitrary way, thus preventing any natural resolution for the characters.

Euripides was a serial offender when it came to deus ex machina.

I can't help feeling Euripides was born into the wrong time and place. He should have been born in the 20th century, where he would have been totally at home writing post-modernist mainstream literary. Euripides essentially had no interest in plot whatsoever. The plot for him was merely a vehicle to carry his beautiful words and exquisite phrases. If he got to the end of what he wanted to say before the story finished...not a problem. He just introduced a god or goddess as a character, suddenly, at the end, and with no rationale whatsoever, to tie up all the threads of the plot in one momentous speech. Then everyone could go home.

Ion is a good example of his perfidy. In that story an orphan called Ion seeks his true identity. The plot becomes a trifle convoluted. There's a false prophecy which totally confuses everyone. Ion meets his mother, all unknowing to them both. She tries to kill him a couple of times (these things happen). He takes a shot at her too. Then Athena turns up for the first time in the story, and in a single speech reconciles everyone and explains away the early false prophecy with a very dodgy throwaway line. Mother and son for some reason think it's cool that they're related, despite recent homicidal attacks, and everyone lives happily ever after. No natural resolution.

This is almost as ridiculous as following for six years a group of people trapped on an island, with all manner of deep symbolism, intricate plot threads and exotic clues, only to close with a happy, happy, joy, joy ending and all the intricate threads left loose. No one in their right mind would write such an ending these day—oh, hang on...scrap that.