Ancient Greek Duels: Achilles vs Penthesilia

Duels have a huge and long tradition.  A while ago I wrote about the most unusual duel in history, which occurred in Paris in 1808.

Classical Greeks didn't have duels.  Or if they did, it didn't make the histories in any significant way.  I can't think of any, off-hand. Classical Greeks were much more into plotting and backstabbing.

The Iliad on the other hand is chockablock full of duels.  After the fall of Minoan civilization the whole region went into a Dark Age.  (Not the Dark Age we know, but an earlier one.)  Duels were all the rage in that period, which also happens to be when Homer's stories come from.

The typical arrangement was that armies would line up, and then various champions would take on each other in individual combat before the general slaughter began.  There's every reason to believe this was what happened in real life, but the majority of duels we know about occurred before the walls of Troy. The most famous is when Achilles slew Hector.

The most interesting I think occurred when Penthesilia fought Achilles.

Penthesilia was the daughter of Ares the God of War and Otrere the Queen of the Amazons.  With that genetic heritage, a wise person would avoid annoying her.

Penthesilia accidentally killed her own sister in a hunting accident.  In a fit of remorse, probably seeking honorable death, she presented herself to King Priam of Troy, who at that moment was sorely troubled.  His son Hector had just died.

Penthesilia took the field, representing Troy.  She slaughtered a whole pile of Greeks before coming up against Ajax.  The fight against Ajax ended in a draw.  Ajax went back to camp and told Achilles about the woman who was mowing down Greeks.

Achilles entered the fray and, inevitably, there was a duel.

This didn't end so well for Penthesilia.  Achilles struck her in the chest and she fell.

A later writer named Propertius adds that after he killed her, Achilles raised Penthesilia's helmet to look upon her face, and instantly fell in love with her.  Which was a trifle awkward since she was dead.

Though they didn't duel themselves, the classical Greeks were very keen on the Homeric combats, and interestingly, there are a lot of vase paintings showing Penthesilia vs Achilles.  For some reason she doesn't seem to get the same airplay in modern retellings.

The 50 Book Pledge

I thought I'd put in a plug for a lovely initiative called the 50 Book Pledge.  The idea is simple: read 50 books in the year and record them on your book page.

I know there are quite a few systems like this around.  Thanks very much to Sharlene for bringing this one to my attention.

If anyone's got a favourite similar reader pledge site that they want to mention, do please pop it in the comments.

Elmore Leonard's Rules of Writing: an historical perspective

It seems to be the season for losing great writers. I'm sorry to say Elmore Leonard has passed away. His most popular work was a book-turned-film by the name of Get Shorty, though crime readers know him for 40+ other fine books.

But Leonard's probably best known for his ten rules of writing. They've been copied across the internet about a trillion times, so let me add to the total. Here they are, from a master of crime writing:

1. Never open a book with weather.

2. Avoid prologues.

3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.

4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said” … he admonished gravely.

5. Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 

words of prose.

6. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”

7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.

8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.

9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.

10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

I know of some writers who follow these rules with religious zeal. Elmore Leonard himself noted that for every rule, there was a good writer who could break it with no problems. Leonard's rules describe his own rather sparse style very well, so it might be more accurate to say that if you want to be a super-successful writer of contemporary American crime fiction then here are some rules to live by.

I don't think Elmore Leonard's rules work quite as well for historical mysteries, and I'm not quite of the same style. So I thought I'd comment on which I think work and which are modifiable.

1. Never open a book with weather.

I'm totally with him on this one. Always open with action. Always! The weather can wait, unless it's raining frogs. I would definitely mention if it was raining frogs. Or bodies.

2. Avoid prologues.

Another big yes. Either the prologue's necessary, or it isn't. If it isn't, it should be cut. If it is, then you've just begun your book with an entire chapter of back story and exposition.

3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.

I disagree with this. There's another important rule to always use the strongest, most descriptive verbs. A verb can work very hard for you when you pick the right one. Rather than go across the room, a character can walk, run, lope, crawl, stagger etc.

The logic for "said" is that any other verb distracts attention from the dialogue, which is true. But sometimes, if you're selective, it can add meaning. I'm happy for my characters to growl, mutter, shout and whisper. Because I write in first person, the choice of tag can tell us in a single word what Nico thinks of some other character's statement.
"How come I'm the one left holding the baby?" Socrates whined.
Or a non-said tag can tell us about Nico's hidden motives. My favourite for this is whenever Socrates upstages Nico with some brilliant deduction, Nico adds:

Socrates makes brilliant deduction.
"I was just about to say the same thing," I lied.
4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said” … he admonished gravely.

Yes, I tend to agree. But that's because I dislike Rule 3, hence I use more colourful tags. Rules 3+4 taken together creates more blandness than I like in dialogue. Leonard himself was not a dialogue sort of guy, whereas I use lots.

5. Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.

My name is Gary and I have a dependency issue with exclamation points. Three per book is way too low, but there is indeed a rather low limit to these things. Where characters get excited, a nicely placed ! can avoid having to use the word "shout" too much. (Which would in turn break rule 3...I'm not scoring well here...)

6. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”

The latter would be a terrible anachronism in my books. The former is an adverb, and a better choice of verb can help you avoid it.

7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.

Deliberately mis-spelled words to simulate a patois are a pain to read and a pest to type. So yes, avoid.

But this one's a tough problem for historical authors. I "translate" the speech of my characters from ancient languages such as Greek and Persian into modern English. Ancient people spoke with different accents, depending on where they came from and their social class, just like modern people, and somehow I have to reflect that in a way that's recognizable. The only alternative is for everyone from the fishwives to the statesmen to all sound like they went to Oxford, a subject on which I've previously written.

So generally I try to find speech patterns for various classes and locations that don't require mispelling and aren't too evocative of any particular modern population. (It clearly won't do for example for any of my characters to sound like a Frenchman.)

Yet you want a certain degree of consistency within a character group. My thugs and dockside low-lives do tend to sound Australian, since they'll say "mate", but otherwise they don't carry the nasal accent and even they are usually grammatically correct.

Yet you can't win on this. I noticed one reader review for Sacred Games in which the reader who otherwise liked the book was disappointed that a couple of dumb fighters had been given a southern drawl. Which came as news to me. I had to go back to my own book to work out who they meant. The reader had simply heard a different accent to the one I'd heard. So on this point, the historical author is pretty much doomed. Sigh.

8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.

Generally yes.

Though in classical historicals you need to take a brief moment to describe the clothing, because it's wildly different to modern wear. I did have such fun with Nico trying to put on a pair of trousers in The Ionia Sanction.

9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.

And here's the big difference. People read historicals because they want to be in a different time and place. It has to be described! Though generally the best descriptions involve lots of verbs and not so many adjectives, so that the reader gets a feeling of a living, moving classical world, like us but different.

Best to avoid blocks of descriptive text though, but rather edge descriptions into the action. This is also a very common method in science fiction.  (In passing, SF and historical mysteries have a great deal of technique in common.)

The classical travel writer Pausanias by the way clearly had never heard of Leonard's rules, because he describes every building he sees right down to length, width and height measurements and even the colour of the curtains (I'm not kidding). I wish I could send Pausanias a thank you card.

10. Try to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip.

The best advice of all.

Amelia Peabody's biographer, Barbara Mertz, enters the Field of Rushes

If you like historical mysteries then you probably already know about Amelia Peabody, the late Victorian sleuth.  Peabody's colourful and somewhat forceful personality was matched only by that of her husband Emerson ("the greatest Egyptologist of this or any other era").

As you might guess, Peabody and Emerson did all their best work in Egypt.  They solved crimes while digging at famous archaeological sites, and helping out their less experienced colleagues, such as young Howard Carter.  Many of the crimes that Peabody solved were linked to ancient Egyptian myths or folk stories, thus creating the novel situation of an historical mystery inside an historical mystery.

Peabody's private journal fell into the hands of Barbara Mertz, herself an Egyptologist, who writing under the name Elizabeth Peters has given us a fictionalized account of Peabody's career.

It is with sadness that I learn today that Barbara Mertz has died at age 85.  She also wrote reams of other stuff, including a short series about an art history sleuth named Vicky Bliss whose boyfriend is an international thief, which I thought every bit as good as the Peabody stories.  Alas, there shall be no more.

Gary is interviewed at Kittling Books

The very nice Cathy Cole interviewed me a few weeks ago for Kittling Books, and the result is now up for the interested reader, wherein I discuss, amongst other things, the dreadful crimes of Horace the Bear.

Cathy discovered my existence in an odd way.  She had a review copy of Sacred Games.  Decided not to read it because she was over ancient Greece.  Then decided for no obvious reason to read it anyway.  Then she contacted me, and I very happily have yet another online friend.

So thanks Cathy for deciding to read the book!