Colloquial ≠ Anachronistic

I've previously talked about voice in ancient mysteries, but I want to add a bit to it, because this subject comes up surprisingly often.

It's a current trend in historical fiction to write in a more colloquial voice than you would have seen in the equivalent fiction of, say, 50 years ago.  That's a trend to which I'm contributing.

Interestingly, if you go back in time 100 years or so, the colloquial trend reappears.  If you look at Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's excellent historical novel The White Company, which is about mediaeval knights, you'll find the characters speak in perfectly colloquial Victorian English.  (Conan Doyle wrote both mysteries and historical novels...he just didn't do them at the same time.)

But in between Conan Doyle and the modern age, virtually every good historical novel speaks like a graduate of Oxford.

That's because in the mid-20th century, virtually every good historical novel was written by a graduate of Oxford.

A classic example (classic in every sense) is Mary Renault, who wrote the best novels of ancient Greece ever.  Guess what?  She went to Oxford.

I think what happened is, the Oxford voice was so common across quality work that it became the expected standard.  Therefore, in the minds of many people, any voice that doesn't sound formal must be in some sense wrong.

Anachronism means putting something into a story that could not possibly be there, because it's a forward reference in time.  If Diotima said something clever (as per usual), and Nico replied, "Good thinking, 99."  Then you could legitimately reach for a high powered rifle and go in search of the author.

But as long as there are no forward references, then any choice of voice is anachronism-free.  Different voices will appeal to different people -- that's a pure matter of taste -- but by no means is colloquial voice anachronistic by definition.

In my case, I'm translating what my characters said in modern, everyday, colloquial Attic Greek, into what my readers understand, that being modern, everyday, colloquial English.  I'm afraid Nico didn't go to Oxford.  Nor did I, for that matter!

Which raises the other big trend that I want to point out: historical novelists are no longer classics graduates.  At least, not necessarily.  This is guaranteed to have a big effect.  If the author's any good, he or she will be solidly grounded in classics, but not coming from the same homogeneous environment means we'll increasingly read diverse views of the ancient world, that simply could not have happened 50 years ago.  The trend to colloquial voice, likewise, will make the ancient world accessible to people who otherwise would never have opened an ancient history book.  All in all, it's an opportunity for ancient-period novels to really grow.

The Page 69 Test

The third and final, but not the least, of Marshal Zeringue's book blogs.  I love the idea of this one.  Marshal asks authors to write about whatever happens on page 69 of their book, and whether it's representative of the rest of the book.

Of course, since there should be nothing in a well structured story that isn't absolutely necessary, it'd be a major problem if someone could write that a page had nothing to do with the story!   Marshal has piles and piles of book entries where authors have talked about their page 69.  They're worth a look.

A killing financial problem

Sometimes, it just sucks to be an accountant.  Back in classical Athens, there was a group of ten city officials, elected yearly, called the Hellenotamiae.  They were the official city treasurers, their job to manage the money vault buried beneath the Parthenon.  The sums they handled were vast.

The Athenians, being the untrusting souls they were, checked the accounts on a regular basis.  On one occasion, the numbers didn't add up.  The ten treasurers were instantly charged with embezzlement.

This is what happened, from a surviving court case that mentions this unfortunate incident as a precedent:
Then again, your Hellenotamiae were once accused of embezzlement... Anger swept reason aside, and they were all put to death save one. Later the true facts became known.
This one, whose name is said to have been Sosias, though under sentence of death, had not yet been executed. Meanwhile it was shown how the money had disappeared. The Athenian people rescued him from the very hands of the Eleven, while the rest had died entirely innocent.

The Eleven was the official Athenian body responsible for carry out state executions.  In other words, Sosias had been in the hands of his executioners when they retrieved him.  The implication of the "it was shown how the money had disappeared" is that it was a mistake in the books.

So the other nine treasurers died for an accounting error.

Would you buy a book from these men?

The characters in the image above (which I ripped off the store's web site) will be at Abbey's Bookshop in Sydney, 6 to 8pm on November 30th for a charity event.

From left to right:  Lenny Bartulin, John Green, Me, Nicholas Hasluck, Stuart Littlemore, Andrew Tink, Michael Wilding.

We're all mystery or thriller authors.  A surprising number are also lawyers, judges, politicians, or some combination thereof.  Why do so many thriller writers have legal training?

If you're in Sydney and want to say hi, come one over.  I'd love to meet you.

Writers Read, and Athenian Homicide Law

Writers Read is the second instalment of Marshal Zeringue's trilogy of book blogs with a theme.  The first was about books-as-movies.  This one's about what do authors read?   My answer was in this post.

I want to expand a little on the second in my list on Marshal's blog, a lovely little book called Athenian Homicide Law by Douglas M. MacDowell.

This is a brilliant book on how ancient Athenians managed trials for murder.  Probably not destined for the NY Times bestseller list, but if you're a humble (or not so humble) author of ancient Athenian murder mysteries then it's a must-read.  It's really well written, it quotes original sources, it states clearly not only what's known, but also what's not known, and best of all, it does not impose a single modern view on how they did things back then.

All too many modern historians impose their own ideological biases on ancient history (they'd deny it, but it stands out like a sore thumb), but MacDowell's done a superb job of keeping things neutral.  So, highly recommended.

I'd like to put in a huge thank you to our very own Stephanie Thornton, who spotted the book, let me know about it, bought it and posted it to me.  Thanks Stephanie!

Swapna Krishna reviews The Ionia Sanction

This just popped up, a lovely review of The Ionia Sanction from Swapna Krishna!

If you go read it, stay to check out her other reviews.  I don't know how many books Swapna's read, but it's a lot, and her review style is impressive.

An odd job for central casting

Marshal Zeringue runs three rather interesting book blogs. He kindly asked me to contribute to all three last year, and he repeated the favour this year.

Here's the first: My Book, The Movie.  The premise being, if I was to make a movie of The Ionia Sanction, how would I cast it?   I didn't nominate all the characters -- there are too many to think about! -- but I did hit a few of the majors.

Gary chats online with the Roman History Reading Group

Two days from now, as I write this, I'll be doing an online chat about The Pericles Commission with the Roman History Reading Group.  Yes, they know my books are ancient Greek, but they let me hang out with them anyway.

They meet in a Google chat room thingy, which is text only, no voice.

The chat starts at 9:30pm US EDT time, on November 16.  If I have my geography right, that's Wednesday, 9.30pm New York time.  Adjust accordingly for your part of the world.  It's actually just after lunch on Thursday Nov 17 for me, but that's because I'm ahead of my time, like most Australians.  The chat runs for an hour and a half and is likely to veer all over the place, but is nominally about my first book.

Anyone who's interested is very welcome to come chat!  If you're interested, the way to join is let the organizer Irene Hahn know, and she'll invite you into the chat room at the right time.  Irene's email address is Irene.B.Hahn AT gmail DOTTY com.  Or if you prefer, just let me know and I'll pass it on to her.

The Roman History Reading Group is a regular crew that like to talk guessed it, Roman history books, both ancient and modern, from Vergil to Vicky Alvear Shecter.

The law and and beauty in ancient Athens

Over at Criminal Element I have a guest post today.  I waffled a bit about how laws and courts worked back then, wandering from the laws of Draco (who's the guy we get the word draconian from), to the infamous incident that happened to Phryne when she was in court.

Criminal Element is a mystery fan site run by Macmillan.  If you're interested, take a look.

A change is as good as a holiday

I've given the blog its first makeover in more than a year, in honour of The Ionia Sanction releasing tomorrow.  (Tomorrow!  OMG!)

If you'd been watching, you'd have seen the background texture, colour, intensity, and brightness, and the header text and the picture of Nico and Diotima change about every 30 seconds for the last four hours as I struggled to get everything bedded in.  Sorry about that.

I think we're more or less stable now, but do please let me know if anything isn't working for you.

Next up, Ionia Sanction gets its very own page tab, and I remember when it was only a few lines of text on my PC.  How the time flies.

The mean streets of classical Athens

If you look to the blurb at the top of this web site, you'll see that Nicolaos walks the mean streets of classical Athens.  The mean streets phrase is very famous in detective fiction, but it occurs to me people might not know where it comes from.

Back in 1950, a chap by the name of Raymond Chandler wrote an essay called The Simple Art of Murder.  I'll quote the closing words:
Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.  The detective in this kind of story must be such a man.
He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man.  He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it.  He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world.
I do not care much about his private life; he is neither a eunuch nor a satyr; I think he might seduce a duchess and I am quite sure he would not spoil a virgin [tough luck for Nico on that one]; if he is a man of honor in one thing, he is that in all things.
He is a relatively poor man, or he would not be a detective at all.  He is a common man or he could not go among common people.  He has a sense of character, or he would not know his job.  He will take no man’s money dishonestly and no man’s insolence without a due and dispassionate revenge.  He is a lonely man and his pride is that you will treat him as a proud man or be very sorry you ever saw him.
He talks as the man of his age talks, that is, with rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for sham, and a contempt for pettiness.  The story is his adventure in search of a hidden truth, and it would be no adventure if it did not happen to a man fit for adventure.  He has a range of awareness that startles you, but it belongs to him by right, because it belongs to the world he lives in.
If there were enough like him, I think the world would be a very safe place to live in, and yet not too dull to be worth living in.

Two more reader reviews, and an interview

Sarah W has posted a review of The Ionia Sanction on her blog, complete with footnotes.  Hop on over to Earful of Cider to see what she thinks!  Also to discuss the mysteries of ancient Greek underwear.

Meanwhile, L.T. Host has written her own review, which includes a little interview with me on the subject of my favourite deaths, and ancient versions of Halloween.

Thank you, ladies!

The Long Walls

The Long Walls were like something out of epic fantasy, with the added advantage that they were totally real.  A few small parts of them still exist.

In this map, Athens is the pink blobby bit in the top right.  Piraeus is the green blobby bit in the bottom left.  Those two lines you see connecting them are the Long Walls.  As you can see, they're long!

There was a wall built around central Athens, and Piraeus was a reinforced naval fortress.  Athens, Piraeus and the Long Walls together formed one, huge, dumb-bell shaped fortification.

Why did they do this?  Well, about two decades before my stories begin, a rather bright lad by the name of Themistocles realized that the safety of Athens required a massive fleet.  I've previously talked about how huge the Athenian fleet was.  At this time, they had about 200 triremes.  They needed somewhere to dock and maintain all those boats, so Themistocles decided to turn a teensy fishing village called Piraeus into a massively fortified naval base, and in so doing he set the future of Greece for the next 2,500 years.  To this day, Piraeus is their major port.

The only problem was the distance between Athens and Piraeus.  An invading army -- Sparta would be a likely choice -- could stand in between to cut off the Athenians from their fleet.

So Themistocles decided to build the Long Walls.  Even back then, they were sometimes called the Walls of Themistocles.

There's a paradox with the dating of these things.  The historian Thucydides states that Themistocles caused the walls to be built, and he states that they were built in 458BC.  The dating on this is technical.  A Spartan army attacked to try to prevent the walls being completed, and it's possible to show this happened in 458, or roundabouts.

But Themistocles was ostracized in 470BC, 12 years before, and then condemned for treason.  He never returned to Athens.  How could he have caused walls to be built 12 years after he was gone?  And why would the Athenians name a major defensive structure after a traitor?  On the face of it, this is impossible!

Historians almost universally go with the 458 date, and don't have a good answer for the Themistocles question.  But I wanted those walls to be there in 461BC, and besides, I think the date paradox needs to be solved.

It occurred to me that the walls might have been built twice.  It might be that, after the Persian Wars, Themistocles caused a rapidly-constructed wooden wall to be built, and that subsequently it was replaced with a more permanent solution.  Thucydides states point blank that the wall erected in 458 was of stone.    A wood-to-stone conversion makes sense, especially since, after twenty years, they'd be starting to see maintenance issues.

Also, disregarding the recorded history, purely as a piece of military thinking, it's inconceivable to me that they would wait 20 years after the Persian Wars to build something so vital to their core naval strategy.

When I checked archaeological records (always check the archaeology) I discovered a report that suggested a small part of the remaining ruined wall structure seems to have been made of wood.  That's not nearly enough to prove my theory by rigorous academic standards, but for a humble author of historical fiction, we're just fine.

Ta-da!  Life is good.

So the walls Nico sees are specifically described as wooden, not stone.

If you'd been standing in the middle of the Long Walls back in 460BC, you would have seen huge amounts of traffic up and down, from the moment dawn broke.  Fishermen landed their catch at Piraeus and carted it up to Athens, to sell in the agora.  Workmen trundled their way back and forth.  Navy men who lived in Athens walked down to their ships.  Merchants with imported goods carted them off the cargo ships and up to the big city.

These days there's a bus route that runs where the Long Walls used to be, and I think the green line of the Athens metro is more or less on the same path too, but in Nico's day the only way up or down was to walk, or take a cart.