The Altar of the Twelve Gods

Archaeologists working in Athens think they've found the Altar of the Twelve Gods. If so, there are going to be some very excited antiquarians. The problem is, the location is smack underneath the train line, and the train people are less than keen about digging up the line and thus halting the trains while the archaeologists do their thing.

The twelve gods we're talking about here are Zeus, Hera, Poseidon, Demeter, Hestia, Apollo, Artemis, Hephaestus, Athena, Ares, Aphrodite and Hermes.

In ancient Athens, in the middle of the agora, was an altar dedicated to the whole crew. The Altar of the Twelve Gods was considered the centre of the city. Here's Nico describing the agora. I wrote this in my first book:
The open space in the middle was covered in a jumble of stalls, each little more than a rough plank resting upon a barrel at each end, with perhaps an awning to keep the vendors and their goods in the shade. I walked past the many stalls selling produce from the farms. These stalls were covered with jars and baskets of olives, olive oil, figs and grapes, corn, goat’s cheese and, rarely, smoked goat meat. Behind every stall stood a farmer, his skin leathery and dark from years working in the sun, his hands calloused, wearing rough clothes and a floppy sheepskin hat, shouting his products or dealing with a customer. These weren’t men to care much of politics; it was all they could do to scratch a living from the stony soil.
Barely visible, fenced off from the chaos, was the Altar of the Twelve Gods. The altar was the very center of Athens, the point from which all distances are measured. It was the only place in Athens dedicated to all twelve Gods, and so especially sacred: a place of sanctuary for anyone who could make it inside the fence before their pursuers reached them. The altar stone was made of marble, flat on top, and somewhat weathered though it had been set in place only sixty years before.
When I wrote that, no one knew what the for real altar looked like, so I made something up. If the archaeologists win the battle to dig the location, this promises to be the first time a later discovery shows something I wrote to be wrong, or, if I'm incredibly lucky, right.

Two interesting reviews of The Pericles Commission

I don't post all the reviews of The Pericles Commission on this blog, because there are a lot of them (surprisingly) and I don't want to bore you all to death with relentless self-promotion.  (You may think it hard to believe, but the marketing side of this business I personally find somewhat cringeworthy.)   I do forward every review I come across to my literary agent and publishers, to prove what a terrific guy I am and give them more reasons to send me another contract. 

But I can't resist showing you these two.  The first comes from Williamsburg Regional Library in the US.  I've supplied the link in that last sentence and you can pop over to read it if you like.  The lines I particularly loved were these:
I have to admit, having studied Greek and Latin at college, I grabbed this book off the shelf the second I saw it. But I also have to admit, my hopes were not high. I was convinced that I would spend the whole time complaining and finding fault. Well, Gary Corby, you have my apologies. The book is well-researched, and the author seamlessly weaves in facts about Athens—the history, culture, and politics—without becoming tedious.
That, to me, is a victory song.  There could be no greater compliment for an historical writer.

The second review comes from the Canberra Times.  There's no online version so here's a scan, and thanks to one of my wife's sharp-eyed friends who spotted it and kept a copy.  What interests me about this one is they asked an historian and archaeologist to do the review.  Clearly a very literary archaeologist.

Your factoid of the day:  Canberra is the capital of Australia.  When the country became independent, Sydney and Melbourne squabbled endlessly over which city should be the capital.  So someone got out a map, drew a line between Sydney and Melbourne, and marked off the exact midpoint.  And that's where they built Canberra.

The mysterious coin

If you have the Australian edition of The Pericles Commission, then you've got a bonus mystery on the cover.  

Here's a detail:

This is the coin that peeps over the bottom edge.  The coin isn't an artist's impression; it's a for-real coin.  The clever designers at Penguin acquired the picture from an image library, and then layered it over the artist's very cool textured background.

When I saw this I emailed Belinda the Publisher to say, "You realize this isn't an Athenian coin, don't you?"  I knew that because all ancient Athenian coins were stamped with an owl, a minerva owl in fact, which is the sacred bird of the goddess Athena.  If you're interested, I once wrote an article about Athenian coins, where you'll see an example.

Neither Penguin nor I were too fussed about it.  The lovely gold coin looked great on the cover and that's what mattered, but out of sheer curiousity, Belinda the Publisher asked in that case, where did the coin come from?

It was a terrific question, because there are a lot of odd things about that coin.  To start with, the face is staring straight out.  Almost all ancient coins showed faces in profile.  Secondly, it's a gold coin, and gold coins were quite unusual; even Athens at her height stuck to silver.  Thirdly, the image library labeled it as a head of Zeus, dated to 360BC.  But there's no way that's a picture of Zeus; and that's an amazingly detailed stamp for 360BC.

I guessed it might be a picture of Helios, a sun god, as you can tell from the name.  Helios didn't get much air time in the classical period, but he was more popular in Hellenistic times.

The coin was unquestionably from a Greek speaking locale, because around the bottom edge, although you can't see it on the cover, are six Greek letters:

Α Υ Ε ... that's Alpha - Upsilon - Epsilon on the left; and

Ι Ο Σ ... that's Iota - Omicron - Sigma on the right.

I can't show you the entire image because I don't own the copyright, but those are the letters.  And those had to be mint maker marks.

Back then, all the Greek cities minted their own coins, and all the mints stamped the first three letters of their city name on their coins.  All Athenian coins, for example, had Α Θ Ε: the first three letters of the name Athens.  You can read off the origin of a coin by matching the three letters on the coin to the first three letters of a known Greek city.

But this coin had two mint names.  It was bizarre.  I went looking for cities whose names began ΑΥΕ, or ΙΟΣ.  To add to the mystery, I couldn't find a single city that might conceivably match such an obviously expensive gold coin.

What in Hades was this thing?

It probably wasn't from the Greek mainland.  I guessed, based on the style of the detailed stamp, the gold, the outward facing, and the non-Zeus-maybe-Helios, that this coin was from the late Hellenistic period, probably from Egypt or somewhere in what is now the Middle East.  The Late Hellenistic period is when Rome ruled, but Greek culture held sway almost everywhere, and Egypt and surrounds at that time was rich enough to be minting with gold.

That was my guess.  I sent the image off for an expert opinion, to an acquaintance who is a for-real expert on the economics of the ancient world.  She had better remain anonymous, because this is an unofficial opinion, but she came back with interesting news:

The coin is a fake!

The Greek letters made no sense to her, either, and didn't match any known ancient mint.  The face doesn't match any known god; it's definitely not Zeus (I got that right, at least!), and it's probably not Helios.

So I checked the database of the image library.  The original picture was taken from a collection, presumably private, 20 or 30 years ago.  Sitting in someone's collection, somewhere, is what is probably a forged coin.

That's where it stands.  We left the coin on the cover of course, because having a forged coin on the cover of a crime novel is just too cool.

Get the big picture of your novel

I'm revising (yet again) Sacred Games, book 3 of my ancient Greek mystery series. In particular I'm shuffling some scenes back and forth to smooth out the narrative flow, and to rebalance a few character appearances.

It's quite hard when you write early drafts to perfectly manage this sort of thing. The story, the plot, the atmosphere and the character development are much, much more important. The truth is, flow and character movement is relatively easy to clean up in later drafts. But by the time you get to it, you have 90,000 words and it's a chore to keep in mind the overall picture. So I have this trick to see what's happening:

In a spreadsheet, I write all the scenes down the left column, and all the characters across the top, preferably in order of appearance. I get something like this (click on the image to see it in better detail):

This is a sanitized version to avoid spoilers. The scenes in the real copy are short descriptions, and the Char N cells along the top are character names.

Now for every scene, I put in an X for each character who appears. All those dots in the picture tell me who appears when, and I can see at a glance who's busy and who isn't.

The coloured rows are sequences of scenes which must be treated as a logical block, and kept together for story logic. I'm only part of the way through this; when I'm finished there'll be more coloured bands. If I want to move a scene that's in a coloured band, I have to move the entire band as a unit. Of course, some bands must precede others, which I've yet to mark in but would normally do down the left hand side.

Can you see where the climax of the story is? It's the scene with lots of Xs in a row. Which means almost every character is present.

If you scan the rows, you'll see I tend to have only a few characters per scene, which is my natural style. Nico goes about prodding and poking at the situation, in much the same fashion as a detective in a traditional mystery from the Fifties. In fact if you made such a spreadsheet for a traditional mystery, you'd get a similar looking pattern.

Columns with only a few Xs are candidates for character elimination, or perhaps merge that character with another. Columns with lots of Xs indicate a character who's having a hard day at the office.

Now to balance out character appearance, I can shuffle the scenes up and down, within the restrictions imposed by the coloured bands and their precedence requirements. When I've finished, I need to rework the entry and exit of the moved scenes to match their new neighbours, and I need to manage any domino effect on plot, though domino effect is minimized by using the band system.

The top surface of the Xs also tells you something. If characters are listed left to right in order of appearance, then the shape formed by the top Xs shows you the rate at which characters are introduced. I've marked it out in a light blue line so you can see what I mean. Ideally, you want a gentle slope downhill, followed by a steep drop, which I more or less have. If you look closely you'll see a couple of lonely Xs outside the shape; that's because I've begun marking in planned changes.

Books do get around

While in Port Macquarie on holiday, we wandered into a book cafe: a secondhand book store that also sold coffee. Since we're a family of readers, places like this always get a look. One of the shelves was this one:

And on the shelf was this book, Brush With Death, by Hailey Lind:

I was instantly amazed, because I happen to know half of Hailey Lind. Hailey Lind is actually two sisters, Carolyn on the left, and Julie on the right:

Julie was one of the very first authors I ever met, at Bouchercon in Indianapolis. These days she's also writing the very fun witchcraft mystery series as Juliet Blackwell. (Julie seems to have more aliases than your average crook.)

I'm pretty sure the Hailey Lind books were never sold in Australia. Someone has bought this book in the US, carried it to Australia, and left it at a random book store in a resort town in New South Wales, to be found by me, who knows the author. Needless to say I bought it, so the book now resides in Sydney. No royalties for a second hand book, I'm afraid, so I owe Julie a coffee next time I see her.

Angus & Robertson at Port Macquarie

It's coming to the close of summer here, and we've recently been on holiday at Port Macquarie, which is a lovely coastal town to the north of Sydney. It's a family favourite because the beaches are terrific.

I wandered into the local Angus & Robertson book store (a major chain), and sitting on the shelves were copies of The Pericles Commission!

I instantly offered to sign them, and Marlita the assistant store manager said yes please and popped on "Signed by the author" stickers. I still find it very weird to walk up to a store person and ask if they'd like me to scribble in their product.

Marlita and Friends

Here's how popular Port Macquarie is for holidays: Marlita commented I was the fourth author to walk in within the space of two weeks, and we were all there on holiday. Clearly a very literary place. So if you're looking for a signed book, Port Macquarie seems to the place to be.