ORBIS: your route planner for the ancient world

Ancient mystery authors rejoice!  Stanford University has produced an online trip planner: one for getting you around the ancient Roman Empire.  It comes complete with route planning, schedule estimates and fare costs.  

My only complaint is all the fares are calculated in denarii rather than drachmae.  But then, the hyper-inflation of the post-Alexander period throws out the costs for me anyway.  

I instantly tested the system on a route for which I knew the answer.  Those of you who've read The Ionia Sanction will recognize this map:

This is the route Nico and Asia took from Athens to Ephesus, aboard Salaminia, the fastest trireme ever built.

Like any ancient author dealing with travel, I worked it out with a map, a ruler, and by knowing the average speed of an African swallow the top speed and average speed of a trireme.  (In the process I learned a lot about trireme dynamics.)

I figured that Salaminia could do it with only a single overnight stop and two very long days. Orbis produced 2.4 days for a standard boat on its quickest route, or 4.5 days if I restricted it to coastal waters and only daylight travel, which would be your average trader.  I did notice you have to be careful with the options.  If I left road travel turned on, the boat stopped on one side of an island, people got off, crossed the island by horse or donkey, then got back on another boat.  Which is obviously unrealistic, but since I did allow it in my choices it's fair enough.

With a little common sense, and by modifying the result with any specific knowledge, it's guaranteed to save you piles of time.  I think this thing is just awesome.  This is what historical research should be in the modern world.

A merry time at Merrylands

Poppy the Possum and friends
Reading is alive and well in Merrylands.  I know this because they invited me to speak there, last Friday, on the occasion of their library's 21st birthday.  It's a week-long celebration and I was privileged to be first off the rank.

The staff at Merrylands are loads of fun.  The picture on the left is me with Poppy the Possum, who encourages kids to read, ably assisted by Kirsty in the middle.  Kirsty's husband is a very clever man because (a) he married Kirsty; (b) he's an expert on ancient history; and (c) he asked tough and fun questions during my talk.

The next two pictures are me pontificating, which I'm rather good at.  I went over time by about 20 minutes and never even noticed.  Frankly, I was having too much fun.

I was also seriously well-matched by the audience.  Early on I was talking about Ephesus, which if you've read The Ionia Sanction you'll know is a city that figures prominently.

It turned out a lady in the audience had walked the place and knew exactly each spot I described.  Then when someone asked me how you get there, I explained the closest location was a Turkish town called Izmir.  Another lady in the middle rows puts up her hand.  She says, "I'm from Izmir."

Piles of brilliant questions from the audience, and they entertained me as much as I, them!

Gary pontificates some more
Gary pontificates

Gary eventually stops talking and signs books

Stephanie Thornton sells three novels at auction!

I've been sitting on this for the last week or so.  Now I can talk about it, because this announcement appeared in the most recent Publisher's Weekly:
Stephanie Thornton's THE SECRET HISTORY, in which a theater tart-turned-Constantinople's premier courtesan must decide what's more important: pleasing the emperor who claims to love her or keeping the son he can never know about, to Ellen Edwards of NAL, at auction, in a three-book deal, for publication beginning in 2013, by Marlene Stringer of the Stringer Literary Agency (World English).
Notice the three book deal and the at auction.  This is publisher-speak for, "These books are really, really good."

If the author's name looks familiar, it's because they're talking about Our Stephanie.

Stephanie first appeared on this blog in September 2009 (I went back and checked) and she's been a regular reader and commenter ever since.  In all that time, and well before, she's been working on her own novels, and now she's earned the reward for unremitting faith in herself, and quality writing.

All three are historicals.  The first is Byzantine.  Those of you who know Stephanie will have no trouble working out that another is Egyptian.


More fun ways to die

Ancient Greeks kept coming up with some pretty bizarre ways to depart for Hades.  I'll mention two:

The founder of modern drama was a chap named Aeschylus.  He's considered the founder because he wrote the earliest surviving play: The Persians.  There were certainly earlier playwrights, among them Thespis, from whom we get the word thespian for an actor, but all their works are lost.

Aeschylus moved to Sicily in his final years.  That was a pretty common thing to do, because in those days Sicilians were nouveau riche but culture poor; they had plenty of money to entice famous artists.

We know for sure that Aeschylus was balding in his old age, because of the odd nature of his end.

Aeschylus was walking along one day when an eagle passed overhead.  Eagles like to eat turtles, but the shell is a problem.  The eagles solve that problem by flying high, then dropping the turtle-victim onto rocks to crack it open.

This particular eagle passing by Aeschylus mistook the playwright's balding pate for a stone.  He let go the turtle in his claws.  Aeschylus thus became the first and, as far as I know only, great writer to be struck down by a plummeting turtle.

Aeschylus not only founded drama, but set the standard for tragic writer deaths.  There were three great tragedians of the ancient age, the other two being Sophocles and Euripides.

Not to be outdone, Euripides moved to Macedonia at the invitation of the royal court.  Where he went for a walk.  And was promptly torn to pieces by wild dogs.

Clearly writers should avoid exercise.

Gary at Merrylands Library

Yours truly will be giving a talk at Merrylands Library, in Sydney, on Friday evening next week.  It's the library's 21st birthday!  
I have far too many things I'd like to talk about, so I'd like to ask your opinion.  Out of all the stuff you've seen on this blog, what do you think might make the most interesting talk for a library audience?  Keep in mind that some of the audience, but not all, will be mystery fans.  Some, but not all, will be historical fans, and of course everyone is a reader.  What do you think for a subject?

If you happen to be within reach of Merrylands, I'd love to see you there.

Books about the craft of writing

This has come up in conversation for me a couple of times in the last week, so I thought I'd pop it in here.  The part of writing that you can learn from a textbook is called craft.  Perhaps it should be called The Craft in the same way that black magic is often called The Art.

Craft is to writing what theory and technique is to music.  Craft means not only how to put words together so they work, but also things like scene structure, story structure, character development, how to handle point of view, techniques like mirroring and so forth. With good craft alone it's possible to write an acceptable story that flows smoothly and that anyone will read.  A story that works.

Craft isn't everything.  That story might be ultimately unsatisfying if you haven't covered off the other two essential elements: voice and storytelling.  Nevertheless, I find it odd that more people who want to write don't invest heavily in learning this stuff, because anyone can do it.

If you're the sort of person who learns well from books, then there are piles of texts about writing craft.  I'm dubious about most of them.  The only ones that I'd recommend, and this is very much a personal opinion, is the series Elements of Fiction Writing. I like it because each book in the series is written by someone with real practical experience.  Also because I agree with most of what they say!  Here they are:

Plot, by Ansen Dibell

Description, by Monica Wood

Conflict, Action & Suspense, by William Noble

Beginnings, Middles & Ends, by Nancy Kress.  (Great  book for teaching basic structure.  That's Nancy Kress the SF author.)

Characters & Viewpoint, by Orson Scott Card.  (A very great writer.  He knows his stuff.)

Scene & Structure, by Jack Bickham.  (The best book of the lot, in my unhumble opinion, and very advanced.  My favourite "how to write" book.)

But having said that, I strongly believe anyone can learn craft by reading good books and thinking about how they worked.  Most writers do just that.  I did that.  It's like musicians who learned their craft by listening to great songs and picking them apart to see how they were put together.

I'd suggest taking your favourite books, then go through each one, mark out the scene boundaries, and ask yourself what each scene does, why it's there, which characters are in it, how each scene leads to the next, and so forth.  A lot of this is very technical and analytical.  If you do it enough, you'll discover standard patterns in any given genre.  Everyone knows, for example, that there are common techniques across every murder mystery, but few can explain them.  Writers learn the techniques well enough to actually use them.