My writerly week, ending 17 March, 2017

Salvete, readers!

To all my new subscribers—welcome! It’s lovely to have you here. I’ll get back on my soapbox next week about writing, but for now it’s time for my weekly round-up of writerly achievements.

I’ll be honest, this has been a rough week. It started with my discovery of a nasty setback with my research, which I won’t go into here. After riding high upon the publication of the new book for the last couple of weeks, this brought me crashing back down to Earth, Icarus-style. Dealing with the problem has pretty much been the focus of my week. Well, that and my day job. On the one hand, I haven’t achieved nearly as much as I would like, but on the other, not every week is going to be as amazing as the last two have been. That’s life, and you just have to go with it. This post is all about celebrating the little wins. Kahlil Gibran said it best: ‘In the dew of little things the heart finds its morning and is refreshed.’ My silly heart could use some refreshment right now.

Writerly achievements of the week:

Creative and academic writing

  • Gathered a bit more research material for the Centaur project. Came up with another angle. Think I may have cracked it at last. Am going to start drafting material to be shared with my brilliant co-authors this week.
  • Wrote a bit more on my Beowulf story. Not happy with what I’ve done, but that’s what drafts are for. Reflecting on it, I managed to figure out what wasn’t working with the scene and devised a solution. This gladdens me mightily. Hint: the scene will now involve some suspicious meat. And a knife. And two trolls. And the Norse god Baldur.

Contributions to the writing community

  • Read a great novel by a local author. Took it slowly, as I think it deserved the attention to detail. Took lots of notes, as ever. I will post a review—possibly here, though I’ve also been invited to do a guest post at another site and this would fit the bill nicely. I’m firmly of the opinion that writers thrive best in a community where people help each other out, and I’m looking forward to giving this writer a boost.

Online author presence

  • You know what? It might seem vain or frivolous, but I’m going to celebrate a couple of small wins in the online realm, particularly in the blogosphere and social media. These aren’t so much achievements, I guess, just little causes for celebration. This week I published my most popular blog post yet, and I reached out to some authors whose work I love on Twitter. I’m not going to lie, I felt a bit giddy when they reached back. I also discovered a lot of new authors whose work I hadn’t yet encountered, and am really looking forward to reading it.
  • I’m pleased though bewildered that I now have about 114 Twitter followers and it continues to grow, especially as I’ve only just recently joined Twitter.
  • On academia.edu, I was amazed to get an email saying that since I posted the cover and blurb of my academic book I’ve shot to the top 4% of scholars viewed for the month. I’m not going to confuse validation with love, but finding a following online is a new experience for me and I think I’m allowed to enjoy it.

And on a sentimental note…

My copies of the academic book arrived! It’s real, it’s solid, it’s in my hands, and I can finally show it to people. My oldest son, aged seven, watched me open the parcel. He didn’t quite know the significance of the moment; it was exciting enough that we got a package. I asked him if he could read the front cover—when he got to my name, he was apoplectic with excitement.

He clapped his hands. ‘You wrote this book, Dad? Wow!’ Then he frowned and looked at the pile. ‘Why did you get extra books? Are they for a garage sale?’

I smiled. ‘Heh. Hope not. I’m going to give them to a couple of special friends who have helped me to get this done.’

‘Why?’

‘To say thank-you. Because I wouldn’t have gotten the book finished if they weren’t there for me.’

He nodded sagely. ‘Everybody needs friends.’ Then he realised Octonauts was on and moseyed off to the lounge room.

What a nice way to end an otherwise not-so-nice week. After all, I wrote the book for my family.

Until next time,

Valete

Historical fiction: what’s accuracy got to do with it?

Salvete, readers!

My last post ended with a promise (or threat, perhaps) to share my thoughts on the concept of ‘accuracy’ as a framework for understanding historical fiction.

Once, at a conference dinner, an inebriated PhD student flipped the bird at me when I mentioned that I wrote historical fiction as well as academic history. ‘I’m not interested in that reception crap,’ he slurred. ‘Because I’m a REAL historian.’ He then proceeded to try and chat up my wife and throw up on me. We are not friends.

I’m sorry to say that the rejection of historical fiction by historians isn’t an isolated malady, though it is mercifully rare. I’ve heard more than one historian smugly proclaim that they will never consume an historical drama. It’s not to their taste, because it’s ‘inaccurate.’ A minority of historians would rather historical drama vanish altogether. The argument is usually something along the lines that academic historians ought to be the gatekeepers of history, lest historical facts be twisted according to the whims of popular taste. Thankfully, this kind of elitism among historians is rare and growing rarer—I think most historians would agree that historical drama in popular media can be a very useful talking point for academics to bring their work into the realm of public discourse. And, as I’ve mentioned in my very first post, story-telling is among the most powerful means to bring the world of the past alive for the present.

Accuracy is a perfectly legitimate framework for assessing academic work, but there really isn’t much point moaning about lack of ‘accuracy’ in historical fiction. It’s fiction. It isn’t real. By and large, I don’t think fiction writers claim otherwise. For an historian working within the genre of academic history or even popular non-fiction, it is grossly unprofessional to make stuff up. But that’s because the historian whose work is misleading betrays the reader’s trust. Unfortunately, it does happen, and when it does the historian gets called out on it by peer reviewers. Hopefully. An academic historian is obligated to ground their work in verifiable fact. The same isn’t necessarily true for the writer of historical fiction.

Now these points regarding the distinction between fiction and non-fiction might seem self-explanatory. On the other hand, remember how that ghastly journalist felt obliged to expose Elena Ferrante’s true identity because it turned out that her made-up stories were made-up? Ferrante was vilified because the journalist lacked the ability to distinguish between fiction and non-fiction. In an age of fake news and alternative facts, it has never been more important to distinguish between the real and the unreal. Both have the power to shape the world.

For the subgenre of historical fantasy in particular, I don’t feel that the author is obligated to portray reality. Rather, they are creating an entirely new world, albeit one which evokes the historical past. The following disclaimer appears in every volume of Cressida Cowell’s children’s series How to Train Your Dragon sums it up nicely. I discovered it when I was reading it to my kids:

Warning: Any relationship to any historical fact whatsoever is purely coincidental. You have been warned.

As soon as I read that, I knew I was in for a fun read. The author doesn’t strive to portray real people, events, or places—the world she creates is her own. Cowell’s having the time of her life with her research, and I want to go along for the ride. I would argue that she is playing with history in a very conscious manner. I always remember this quote from her website:

  1. Do you do any research for the Hiccup books?

The Hiccup books are really ‘fantasy’ books pretending to be ‘history’ books. (The dragons are a bit of a clue, here). In real history, the Vikings could never have met the Romans, as they do in How to Speak Dragonese, because they missed each other by about three hundred years. However, even though the history in the Hiccup books is not to be relied on, I still do masses of research. History is full of fascinating facts that give me ideas for storylines. For instance, I found out that in the harsh, snowy winters, the Vikings used skis to get around, and this gave me the idea for the ski-chase at the beginning of How to Cheat a Dragon’s Curse.

That said, the effectiveness of the world-building in an historical fantasy is directly proportional to how grounded it is in reality. It is much easier for a reader to buy into the phantasmagoria and the supernatural if the mundane elements feel like they belong to a real time and place.

When I catch myself griping because of anachronisms, I know that I have lapsed into pedantry. Nit picking is fun, if useless. It strikes me as a very shallow way to engage with a text. It’s much more interesting—and certainly I learn a lot more—when I make a conscious decision to consider how the author has used their research materials to tell a story. Story comes first, always. I’m very much invested in these matters as the author of a YA historical fantasy based on Greek myth.

In my next post, I will share my views on the concept of historical authenticity, as opposed to historical accuracy.

Until next time,

Valete

Adventures in anachronism

Last week I took a shot at promoting my first academic book. This week I want to ramble a bit about my other great writing passion, historical fiction. This is the story of how I learned to stop worrying and love storytelling.

It happened when I was in my late teens. I was standing outside the mead tent at the medieval fair and feeling weirdly conspicuous. Everyone else was strutting around clad in armour, robes, gowns, tunics. Me? Jeans, t-shirt, jacket. Don’t get me wrong, I’d thought about dressing up. There was a brown cape I’d had my eye on all week. A monk, that’s what I’d be. I could wear my old Rosary beads. After the fair, the brown robes would be reborn as a Jedi costume—at parties and/or running around the house with my toy lightsaber. And yet something held me back. Fear. A lot of teenagers are afraid of standing out or looking silly. Lots of adults too, come to think of it. But that wasn’t it. For a history geek like me, there was another aspect. Fear of anachronism. Fear of getting it wrong.

I’d come a long way from being an odd kid with sock puppets and a love of I, Claudius. Now I was an odd teenager who wanted to be an historian—how could I live with myself if my costume was historically inaccurate? And now I was standing around with my hands in my pockets, feeling like the only clothed person at a nudist retreat. Or so I imagined.

I swallowed and looked around. It seemed like I was swimming in a sea of anachronisms. Sequins on medieval dresses, zippers on trousers. A guy brushed past me carrying what looked suspiciously like a Klingon dagger on his belt. He was wearing a woolly jumper spray-painted silver so it looked sort of like chain-mail. To judge by the fumes, he’d done it that very morning. I think the BBC used the same trick when they did Narnia in the 90s, though they allowed the paint time to dry. Probably.

This is stupid, I thought. I should go home.

Yeah, I was a pretty grumpy teenager. Thank goodness I emerged from the larval stage.

That’s when the guy with the Klingon knife turned around made eye contact. ‘This is great, huh?’

‘Yeah,’ I said. What else can you say to that?

His face creased into a smile. He was missing a tooth. That felt historically authentic, at least. But his smile was so genuine that I couldn’t help returning it.

It hit me like a mace to the back of the head. Trust me, that hurts. This guy had it right, and I had it wrong. It didn’t matter whether any of this stuff was accurate or carefully researched. He was in the moment, having the time of his life, and I bet it wasn’t just because he was high on paint fumes. People at the fair had embraced the past with glee, while I was a stick-in-the-mud who refused to have any fun.

When I write historical fiction, I always remember that day. One of the points of telling stories about the past is to take readers on a journey into another world. In the case of historical fantasy like my novel Ashes of Olympus, the otherworldliness is far more literal. I embrace the spirit of the past, leap into it, glory in all the silliness and splendour of the ancient and medieval worlds. Greek and Roman history have their share of the dour and humourless, but also of the ridiculous. The same age that birthed Thucydides and Plato also spat out Aristophanes. Late antiquity gave us wowsers like Augustine, sure. But when I hear him complaining about early Christians using feast days as an excuse to get drunk and party, the world he lived in seems that much more real. What is the point of interacting with the past, if you fetter the hurly-burly?

Fear of anachronism is very real for a lot of people with a love of history, and probably a lot more pertinent for an historical novelist than a pimply bespectacled boy with an attitude problem. Just as it stopped me from getting into the spirit of the medieval fair as a teen, it can also be crippling for an author. My experience at the fair led me to cross-examine my own preconceptions about history, fiction, and the relationship between them. The man in the woollen chain-mail prompted me to adopt the principle of historical authenticity as opposed to historical accuracy. The framework of authenticity allows the writer and reader a lot more freedom, and with freedom comes joy.

The distinction between accuracy and authenticity as frameworks for understanding historical fiction is something I shall explore in greater depth in the next couple of posts.

Until next time, vale.

Book announcement: Tertullian and the Unborn Child

I’m thrilled to announce the release of my first academic book, Tertullian and the Unborn Child: Christian and Pagan Attitudes in Historical Perspective.

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What’s this all about, then?  

I’ll let the blurb do the talking.*

Tertullian of Carthage was the earliest Christian writer to argue against abortion at length, and the first surviving Latin author to consider the unborn child in detail. This book is the first comprehensive analysis of Tertullian’s attitude towards the foetus and embryo. Examining Tertullian’s works in light of Roman literary and social history, Julian Barr proposes that Tertullian’s comments on the unborn should be read as rhetoric ancillary to his primary arguments. Tertullian’s engagement in the art of rhetoric also explains his tendency towards self-contradiction. He argued that human existence began at conception in some treatises and not in others. Tertullian’s references to the unborn hence should not be plucked out of context, lest they be misread. Tertullian borrowed, modified, and discarded theories of ensoulment according to their usefulness for individual treatises. So long as a single work was internally consistent, Tertullian was satisfied. He elaborated upon previous Christian traditions and selectively borrowed from ancient embryological theory to prove specific theological and moral points. Tertullian was more influenced by Roman custom than he would perhaps have admitted, since the contrast between pagan and Christian attitudes on abortion was more rhetorical than real.

About the series

Medicine and the Body in Antiquity is a series which fosters interdisciplinary research that broadens our understanding of past beliefs about the body and its care. The intention of the series is to use evidence drawn from diverse sources (textual, archaeological, epigraphic) in an interpretative manner to gain insights into the medical practices and beliefs of the ancient Mediterranean. The series approaches medical history from a broad thematic perspective that allows for collaboration between specialists from a wide range of disciplines outside ancient history and archaeology such as art history, religious studies, medicine, the natural sciences and music. The series will also aim to bring research on ancient medicine to the attention of scholars concerned with later periods. Ultimately this series provides a forum for scholars from a wide range of disciplines to explore ideas about the body and medicine beyond the confines of current scholarship.

How on earth did I come up with this topic?

Heh, I remember explaining my research to a class once. One undergrad rolled her eyes and said, ‘Well, that’s random.’ I gather this was meant to be a put-down. This is a very specialised topic, though one which has implications for broader society. Perhaps it is best to begin with the story. That’s kind of my thing.

It all started when my wonderful wife and I were expecting our first baby, and we were waiting for our first ultrasound. Right at that moment I was trying to think of a good topic for my PhD research—looking for an area where I could break new ground in a subject which meant something to me. Mostly I was interested in Roman social and literary history, so I figured I’d stay on that path. As we were sitting in the hospital waiting area, my mind put two and two together: how would the Romans would have thought about the foetus and embryo? It’s not like they could see what was going on inside the uterus.

Bing! That was a lightbulb above my head. How did the offspring in utero fit into Roman family life? There was no word in Latin or Greek for ‘foetus’ or ’embryo.’ What did that tell us, if anything? When did the Romans think the soul came into being? Some of the secondary literature I’d read suggested that abortion was a routine occurrence in pagan Rome. Was that really true? I was determined to find out. Oodles had been written on Roman attitudes towards children, but the story generally started at birth. This struck me as odd. After all, parents start to think about their future children long before they set foot in the delivery room.

Flash forward a few months, and I was swamped in research. I’d imagined that I wouldn’t find a lot of source material to work with, but the opposite turned out to be the case. It was clear I needed to focus the research more intensely. Wringing my hands, I went to my supervisors, who suggested the project would be a lot more achievable if it revolved around a single ancient source. Who though? Galen? Hippocrates? Maybe. But wouldn’t it be great to make use of the research I’d already done on Roman social mores and family life? I was curious as to the impact of medical and philosophical theory on Roman conceptualisations of the foetus and embryo.

And that’s how I made the acquaintance of Tertullian—I wouldn’t call him a friend, exactly, though he’s definitely one of the most interesting people I know. Fiery of temper, steeped in rhetoric, extremely well-read in ancient medicine and philosophy, and Roman down to his socks and sandals. Tertullian, as it turned out, was loquacious on the subject of the foetus and embryo. In fact, he was the first Christian source to address the subject at length, though others had touched on it before. Through the eyes of a Roman social historian I was viewing a question which was directly relevant to today’s world: where did Christian opposition to abortion come from?

Wait, what? That’s a pretty controversial topic!

Yes, it is. For good reason—we’re grappling with big issues. There’s no point pretending the history of abortion is not politically contentious. History plays such an important role in determining policies like Roe v Wade. Readings of early Christian sources are always influenced by modern controversy—indeed, this is true of all historical sources.

Over and over I’ve seen Tertullian and other historical figures conscripted as foot-soldiers in crusades for and against abortion. Rather than try to categorise Tertullian as a pro-life or pro-choice author, I aim to give readers a deeper explanation of his views on the subject. In doing so, I’ve made a very deliberate choice not to push any political stance for or against the legality of abortion.

Still, it would disingenuous to act as though I don’t have an agenda. Full disclosure: I seek to give an historical context to allow more informed discussion. One of the great justifications for the academic study of history is that the present informs the past and can thus tell us something about ourselves. For Classical history in particular, it is often claimed that the Greeks and Romans built the foundation of the modern West. On the subject of Christian conceptualisations of the offspring in utero, there is indeed a clear link between modern and ancient thought.

Who is the target market?

Like most academic books, Tertullian and the Unborn Child is primarily marketed and priced for university and college libraries. My research is meant to serve anybody with a scholarly interest in the history of Christian thought concerning abortion. For this reason I wrote the book for a broad academic readership. It will be of use to both specialists and non-specialists in Greek and Roman history.

An extensive preview of Tertullian and the Unborn Child is available via Google Books and Amazon. Here you will find the preface and introduction. It is available to purchase as a hardback or an ebook via the Routledge website and can be ordered through numerous online retailers.

Until next time, vale.

Julian

* Text and cover image not to be copied.

The power of historical storytelling. And sock puppets.

The best place to start is the beginning, unless you’re Homer.

I first fell in love with all things Greek and Roman when I was about eight years old, sitting on the couch with my mum watching the BBC’s wonderful series I, Claudius. The sets might have been shaky, but even to my prepubescent mind the writing was solid. The story had everything: swords and sandals, poisoned mushrooms, Patrick Stewart in a toupee! Thank goodness Mum didn’t stop to consider whether the bloody saga of the Roman imperial family was age-appropriate. My immediate reaction, of course, was to stage my own version of I, Claudius with sock puppets for my third-grade classmates. For the most part, my long-suffering teacher managed to contain her bemusement. The kids cheered, and that’s what counted. Ever since, I’ve been convinced that story-telling is the most powerful means to bring the world of the ancients to life for today’s generation.

At the University of Queensland I leapt into studies of antiquity, striving to master Greek and Latin while working at the R.D. Milns Antiquities Museum. You can still find my favourite artefact there. Just a simple clay jug, nothing fancy, but centuries ago somebody picked it up while the clay was still wet. The fingerprints remain visible even today. In the epic poetry of Homer and Vergil I discovered the power of language to sweep readers into the world of gods and magic. Eventually, my doctoral research led me to travels in Europe. Snowflakes swirled all around as I stood in the broken remains of a Roman amphitheatre. Wandering through the ancient ruins, I knew the myths had cast their spell on me. And they have never let go.

After finishing my PhD, I did a brief stint as a high school teacher, hated being called ‘sir,’ and dived into academic and creative writing. I was fortunate enough to achieve a research fellowship at my alma mater. Still, I prefer to call myself an itinerant bard. My first academic book, Tertullian and the Unborn Child, is due to be released by Routledge on 3 March, 2017. I’ve also written a YA historical novel, the first of a trilogy based on Vergil’s Aeneid. The title is Ashes of Olympus: The Way Home. Although I remain open to the possibilities of sock puppet theatre as a story-telling medium, historical fantasy is my passion.

Over the coming weeks, I’ll share a bit more about my research, writing, and current projects. Until then, vale.