Ashes of Olympus: The epic illustrations

Salvete, readers!

I was really grateful that I could include illustrations in The Way Home, as Greek mythology lends itself to visual story-telling. The nine lavish illustrations enrich the story and give the book a unique character. I’m telling a tale of gods and monsters and magic… Why would I not want to see that fill the page? It’s the next best thing to having my book adapted for film. And given that The Way Home is intended for both YA and adult readers, it also felt right to include illustrations. In the age of the graphic novel, visual literacy is more important than ever. I didn’t want the illustrations to simply complement the story, but to be an essential part of it.

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Every illustration functions like a panel from a comic book. Some things are better conveyed visually than through prose, which meant that I could be sparer with exposition. For example, I felt more comfortable leaping into the action with the fall of Troy because this was the first thing readers saw:

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The image of the Trojan horse at night, wreathed in flames, instantly tells readers everything they need to know about where we are in the story. I didn’t need to tell the reader about the horse because it was all there to see. At my editor’s suggestion, I even ended up changing the first chapter because the illustration made some of the description redundant.

One of the most powerful images in the story is actually from a moment which isn’t conveyed through prose at all, but occurs between chapters.

The illustrator Matt Wolf is an old friend of mine, a Queensland-based artist. What I love about his work is that it evokes the numinous, the mysterious and the epic. Check out Matt’s Instagram here! He has a great ability to conjure other worlds with his artwork, and when I discovered that I would be able to include illustrations in the Ashes of Olympus trilogy, I instantly knew he was the one for the project. Matt took the idea of handling it like a comic book with gusto, creating vivid, dramatic and startling images which bring the story to life.

It was a pleasure to collaborate with Matt, who was easy going, professional, and transparent in his communications. I suspect I was more involved in the process of creating the illustrations than most authors. Initially I gave him the synopsis along with a set of extracts from scenes which I thought would make for good illustrations. I also provided notes on character appearances and photographic reference materials for him to use as a starting point.

In choosing the reference materials, I decided to go with artefacts from the Hellenistic or Classical ages of Greece, rather than stick too closely to the bronze age. Not historically accurate, perhaps, but instantly recognisable. If readers can recognise certain icons, it makes the story that much more relatable. However, I tried to do so in a manner sympathetic to the past. For example, in the illustration below the warriors are kitted out in hoplite armour with Corinthian helmets, but their swords are taken straight from the Myceneans. A case of gleeful anachronism! You can get away with these things when you are writing fantasy.

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Aeneas’s appearance is modelled upon that of Alexander the Great. Alexander’s look brings to mind the idea of kingship in antiquity, partly because so many subsequent monarchs emulated him. But given that Alexander so consciously styled himself to look like a Homeric hero, I thought it was acceptable.

From there, I was happy to let Matt run with it. I made the conscious decision to give him the space to make his own decisions. It isn’t easy to hand over the story to another creative person and let them play, but its worthwhile. Matt did consult me and provided me with running updates, but for the most part I let him tell the story his own way. Sometimes his interpretation does differ from the way I picture things, and that is a good thing. Sometimes when you let other people into your world, the result is better than you could have possibly imagined. The illustrations turned out so well, in fact, that my publisher printed the book on white paper rather than cream to maximise their effect.

Matt, mate, if you’re reading this (and I know you are!!) I just want you to know from the bottom of my heart how grateful I am for all of your efforts. You helped to define the book and it stands out from the crowd because of you.

And if you would like Matt to illustrate your work, he is available for commissions.

The Way Home is available via the online store of your choice!

Until next time,

Valete

PS. I’m offering a free short story exclusively to followers of my newsletter. Sign up here for your copy! Fear not, I won’t give away your email address and you can unsubscribe at any time.

 

The Way Home: Chapter 1

Salvete, readers!

I thought I would share the first chapter from my debut novel, The Way Home, Book I of the Ashes of Olympus trilogy. I hope you enjoy it!

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Illustration by Matt Wolf

Chapter 1

‘Aeneas, for the love of the gods, open up!’ cried Sergestos, pounding on the front door.

Aeneas ran to the door and wrenched it open. ‘Stop yelling, would you? My father will flay me if you wake him.’ He stopped short as he realised Sergestos’s round face was covered in soot and reeked of smoke. The scholar wore a studded baldric over his tunic. ‘What’s happened?’

‘It’s the Greeks, they’re here.’

Aeneas swore. ‘Let me get my gear. I’ll be at the main gate in—’

Sergestos shook his head. ‘Aeneas, they’re here. Inside the walls.’

Aeneas staggered. The sea god had built the walls himself. They stood over forty cubits tall. No mortal power could break them.

‘What? How can that be? They sailed home yesterday.’

Sergestos shrugged. ‘Something to do with that horse. Point is, half the city’s in flames.’

Aeneas rushed upstairs to see for himself, and Sergestos followed.

Fire.

All his life Aeneas had loved to look down upon the city, to gaze at the twinkling lanterns in the streets. Now thatched rooftops were alight, the flames glaring like eyes in the night. The fire was spreading from the outer city, where the peasants lived. The screaming echoed heavenward. He blinked sweat out of his eyes, straining to peer past the flames. Far off, the city gate gaped like an open wound. Column after column of Greek warriors passed through, hungry to pillage the defenceless Troy. They were making a beeline toward the palace, marching up the main road. The bronze of their helmets and armour glistened in the burning.

What in Hades was going on? Somebody should have rung the warning bell. This wasn’t a battle. It was defeat, the end of everything. The thought twisted in his belly like a knife.

‘Daddy?’ Little Julos waddled out of his bedchamber at the foot of the stair, rubbing his eyes. His curls were tousled with sleep.

‘Hey, little man,’ said Aeneas. ‘Where’s Mummy?’

‘I’m here,’ said Kreusa. ‘Has something happened?’ She emerged from the bedchamber opposite Julos’s, tying her hair back with one hand. Looking up, she saw the embers spiralling into the sky. ‘The city,’ she breathed.

Sergestos swallowed. ‘Gods help us, our training never prepared us for this. Troy has fallen.’

Aeneas shook his head and jutted his jaw. ‘Not yet. Not if we save the king.’

Sergestos glanced from Kreusa to Aeneas. ‘Right. See you shortly, then.’ He clapped Aeneas on the shoulder and bolted down the stairs past Julos and out the door.

Tightening her lips, Kreusa beckoned Aeneas downstairs and into their bedchamber. ‘Julos, wait in your bedchamber, please. I won’t be long.’

‘But I’m—’

‘It’ll be fine, son,’ said Aeneas.

Kreusa passed Aeneas his sword belt, her hands steady.

He buckled it to his side, put on his leather jerkin. Aeneas glanced up at his polished helmet and breastplate mounted on the wall. Father had given them to him for his eighteenth birthday last year. No self-respecting warrior would go into a fight without full armour, but there was no time.

Father gave a snore from down the hall.

‘I’ll get him up,’ Kreusa said, reading Aeneas’s mind. Julos padded into their bedchamber, slurping on his fingers, and she scooped him into her arms. ‘Go on. We’ll be fine.’ Kreusa looked him in the eye, resolute.

Aeneas had always loved Kreusa for her ability to take charge, right from their betrothal day. He reached for her and Julos.

Kreusa kissed him once, hard, on the mouth. Then she pushed him away gently. ‘There’ll be time later. You need to go,’ she whispered. ‘Please, love. Just go. And if you run into enemy gods, stay out of their way.’ Kreusa turned, but it didn’t hide the tear streaking down her cheek. She swept out of the chamber, holding their son tight. Julos peeked over her shoulder at Aeneas, eyes wide and green as his father’s.

Aeneas stared after them for a moment, then shook himself. Kreusa was right, he’d wasted enough time already. He snatched up his gear on his way out, found the weight of his spear a familiar comfort. The leathery smell of his ox-hide shield reassured him it was ready to protect.

Taking a deep breath, he passed over his doorstep.

***

I hope you enjoyed Chapter 1. In the meantime, The Way Home is available via the online store of your choice!

Until next time,

Valete

 

 

Releasing my debut novel: The first week

Salvete, readers!

My debut novel The Way Home has finally been released worldwide and is available in a variety of online stores as both an e-book and paperback. Cue the confetti and balloons! Nothing can beat the chemical high of knowing that after months and years of hard work, the story is finally out there for the public to read. This is a moment which I have looked forward to since I was a teenager and decided I wanted to be a writer. And after working on the manuscript so long, it is surreal to know that there is literally nothing I can do to make the book better. It’s out there now. However, I also know I would never have made it this far without the amazing support of many people. A great big gigantic thank-you for sticking with me, everybody. Your marvellous support and encouragement makes all the difference to me.

The paperback actually snuck onto Amazon a little early, which was a nice surprise. To my amazement, it actually started to attract sales before the official release date! But I decided not to announce it was ‘officially’ available until both the e-book and paperback were released, hoping that this would attract a rush of sales which would be looked upon favourably by the gods of the algorithm. To my delight (and relief) it paid off. I was watching anxiously—after all this preparation and planning, what if the whole thing flopped? So much of this industry depends on luck. However, it didn’t take long for the novel to reach the number one spot in its little niche on Amazon Australia. The highlight came last weekend, when my little book reached the top 50 books selling on Amazon overall. Not just in its niche, but for the store overall. I documented its steady rise through the charts the only way I knew how… with terrible cartoons I drew using Paint!

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Just assume that cartoon-me has feinted in that last pic and is thus out of shot.

It was such an honour to see my book ranked alongside those of Rick Riordan, even for a moment. For me, as an unknown Australian author published by a small press, that was the best feeling in the world.

I was overwhelmed by the amount of support I received via social media during the release week—I had to switch off my phone at work because it kept pinging through the day. People liked, shared, retweeted, and declared they had bought the book. I was taken aback by the warmth shown by not only friends and family, but also the classics community, fellow Australian authors, teachers and librarians. And, of course, listeners of The Bestseller Experiment! I have done a few podcasts with them over the last few months, and I’m profusely grateful for the way listeners took the book into their hearts. One of my goals throughout this process has always been to reach a community of readers, and I’m glad to have achieved it.

Then came the big moment when my copies (30 of them!) arrived. Believe it or not, this was the first time I had held the book in my hands. It’s a scintillating sensation—seeing the cover on the screen of my laptop could never convey the richness of the red and gold cover. And I cannot get over how handsome the illustrations are by artist Matt Wolf!

And so, what started as my nerdy little ambition to adapt an ancient epic has turned out to be one of the greatest moments of my life. And I’m so very grateful. It’s time to get cracking on the next book, of course, and I have a few other projects in the pipeline. I shall admit that I’m tired and could probably use a rest. But still elated and so ready for the next step. As always, I hope you’ll join me for the journey.

If you haven’t bought The Way Home already, it is available via the online store of your choice!

Until next time,

Valete

PS. I’m offering a preview and a special short story exclusively to followers of my newsletter. Sign up here for your free copy to read on a Kindle or any other e-reader! Fear not, I won’t give away your email address and you can unsubscribe at any time.

The Way Home: Origins of the novel

Salvete, readers!

My debut novel The Way Home officially launches in just a few days. The pre-order also has found its way to Amazon early, both for the paperback and the e-book. It’s actually doing pretty well already, given that I haven’t officially announced that it is available! It is a little bit surreal, seeing it in the top ten of its little niche, alongside Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson books. It’ll be properly available next week, and you can bet I’ll let you know when it’s out. In the meantime, a few people have asked me where I got the idea to write the Ashes of Olympus trilogy, a YA adaptation of Virgil’s Aeneid.

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Check out some of the amazing illustrations from Matt Wolf!

It started when I was an undergraduate in Latin class. My lecturer’s enthusiasm for the Aeneid was infectious, and I was not immune. Just about every lesson he would put a passage from Virgil on the board for us to decipher with the air of Santa Claus pulling a toy from his sack. Determined to know more of the story, I picked up a translation of the Aeneid and read it cover to cover. I had encountered Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey before, but the plight of the Trojan prince Aeneas spoke to me on a level I had not really expected. Perhaps the desire for a place to belong spoke to me in my late teens. On a more superficial level, I loved the sense of adventure. I had always been a reader of fantasy and historical thrillers, and here was a classic quest with monsters, gods, and epic battles. More than that, I adored the sensitivity of Virgil’s characterisation, particularly of Dido. Though I sometimes found the character Aeneas difficult, it helped me to understand that when we are reading classics we are dealing with the ideals of another age. Discovering the joys of Latin scansion helped me to find the music in Virgil and gave me an appreciation of poetic language which I had never really found before. Every time I returned to the poem, the same thought would occur to me: this would make such a great novel!

Later in my degree, when I came to translate the poem itself, I decided to translate it into the prose of an adventure novel whose language echoed the historical thrillers I had always enjoyed. Something along the lines of Valerio Massimo Manfredi, Conn Iggulden, or Bernard Cornwell. There was just one problem: the translation was awful! For some reason, dactylic hexameters didn’t gel with the direct language of a thriller or fantasy. I hated what I had written, and so would anybody with sense, so I shelved it and moved on.

Several years passed. I wrote a lot of terrible stories which will never see the light of day. I married and became a young dad. I did a postgrad research degree, worked for a museum, and immersed myself deeper into the classical world than is healthy. Eventually I went to present a paper at the Classical Association conference at the University of Reading. This was the first time I had travelled overseas on my own, and I felt very far from home. It was worth it though. One of the themes of the conference was the reception of Greek and Roman culture in children’s and young adult novels. There were a lot of great panels on Caroline Lawrence and Rosemary Sutcliffe. But the key moment didn’t come until I was on my way home.

At Heathrow I met a young woman who was struggling with her luggage. I offered to help, and we got chatting, and I casually asked where she was from. At this point she started crying—she was from Bosnia, but she was effectively homeless, a citizen of nowhere. Neither side of the civil war wanted anything to do with her. One side rejected her because of her heritage, and the other side because of her father’s religion. The war had been over for years, but she was still a refugee. She had endured horrors as a child which no human being should have to go through. I was sitting on the plane home, reflecting on what she had said. And that’s when it hit me: the Aeneid is in its essence a refugee’s tale from a world of gods and magic. It’s a tale for anybody who has felt there’s no place in this world for them. A theme which, two thousand years after the Aeneid was written, is still sadly relevant. And somehow this idea connected with the panels on YA literature I had seen. By the time I got off the plane, a plan was forming.

I wasn’t going to translate the Aeneid. I was going to adapt it, tell the story in my voice. I wasn’t going to put Virgil up on a pedestal. Instead, I would write an original work which captured something of what made the story significant to me. It would still be a rip-roaring adventure for young readers. Yet it would focus on the deeper theme of the refugee crisis. My goal was to make it a great story in its own right, not edutainment. And I would infuse it with something of my own experiences, make it personal. And you know what? This last part was actually really scary. But for the first time, I felt like the writing worked. It was real.

Five years and many drafts later, here we are. The book will be in readers’ hands very shortly. I’ve done all I can to make it the best story possible.

I hope you’ll join me for the journey.

Until next time,

Valete

PS. I’m offering a preview and a special short story exclusively to followers of my newsletter. Sign up here for your free copy to read on a Kindle or any other e-reader! Fear not, I won’t give away your email address and you can unsubscribe at any time.

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Review– Troy: Fall of a City

Salvete, readers!

I finally finished the Netflix/BBC retelling of the Trojan War. It has taken me a while as I like to take my time when I’m watching a show I find interesting. ‘Interesting’ is probably the word for Troy: Fall of a City, in a good way for the most part. It’s a rich, complex adaptation with some amazing production values. It takes its time to convey the plot, but the characterisation has the chilliness of a Greek tragedy. Which makes sense, because that’s precisely what it’s meant to be.

Mild spoilers below.

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I was amazed by the sheer scope of the show’s storytelling, and was surprised that it drew not only upon the Iliad but also the Odyssey and Aeneid, as well as Sophocles and Euripides. I get the sense that the show-runners wanted to convey the full sweep of the Trojan War and approach it from as many angles as possible. This ambition is simultaneously the show’s strength and its weakness. Though the cast is enormous and the story is rich with intrigue and tension, we never really spend enough time with any of the characters to become overly invested. I seldom had the sense that it was anybody’s story in particular, or a sense of the characters’ development or growth. The difference between this story and HBO’s Rome is striking. I think casual audiences would prefer to cheer on a likeable viewpoint character whom they could follow through this sea of names and faces. Troy: Fall of a City really needed an everyman character like Lucius Vorenus or Titus Pullo to work as a straightforward heroic narrative.

That said, the show plays with a lot of the tropes of Greek myth in a really clever way which absolutely drips with irony. A good example is a scene where Achilles slices an enemy’s Achilles tendons before he kills him. Another is where Hector declares that he would rather a short life with his family than a long one alone– a brilliant inversion of Achilles’ choice to have a short life as a warrior than a long one as a family man. The show also manages not to make the Trojans look like idiots for bringing the horse into the city, and that is actually quite a feat. The writers included gods in the story and succeeded in invoking a sense of the numinous rather than high camp. I’ve never seen that before.

Troy: Fall of a City differs greatly from the 2004 film Troy in that it doesn’t glorify war, and perhaps you’re not really meant to like any of the characters. There’s no honour or love to be won on this battlefield. Instead, the show captures the brutality and pathos of a Greek tragedy. It doesn’t have any of the warmth or human moments which fill Homer. One of my favourite scenes in the Iliad is from Book 6, where little Astynax interrupts an argument between his parents by crying at the sight of his father in a crested war-helmet. Andromache laughs and sniffles at the same time as Hector whips the helmet off and cuddles his son to calm him. It’s a tender scene, simultaneously sad and funny. You won’t find many such moments in Troy: Fall of a City. It’s mostly bluster and blood.

There’s no talking horses, either. But whatever.

It isn’t meant to be Homer, but a tragedy staged for the screen. It differs from most sword and sandal epics in that it’s a meditation on the horrors of war, told in a thoughtful and unrushed manner. The characters could be more approachable, but then, you don’t necessarily  go see a Greek tragedy because you want to cheer on the heroes as they rush toward their doom.

Until next time,

Valete

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Adventures with Centaurs!

Salvete, readers!

You know that bit in the 2014 movie Hercules where our heroes spot horsemen from a distance and mistake them for Centaurs? As a classicist, I’m probably not meant to admit this, but I have a real soft spot for that movie. But then, I also have a soft spot for my childhood dog, who is an idiot.

Turns out that this motif of misunderstood sight has a very long history. Earlier this year, I worked with Dr Greta Hawes and Prof Minerva Alganza Roldánin on a research article which deals with that tradition. It has just been published in the 2017 edition of Polymnia. I’ll give you the basic run-down here.

In the fourth century BC, the Greek writer Palaephatus wrote a treatise called On Unbelievable Tales, in which he refuted many of the Greek myths as scientifically implausible and then postulated his own theories about the origin of the stories. Basically, he argues that mundane events were misconstrued and wound up being exaggerated to the point where ridiculous half-truths come to be accepted as realities.

Here is what he says regarding the Centaurs, as we have translated it in the article (pp 234-35):

It is said about the Centaurs that they were beasts and that they had the appearance of a horse, except for their head, which was that of a man. Even if someone believes this beast existed, it is impossible, since human and equine natures are entirely incompatible, their food is different, and it is not possible for the food of a horse to pass through the mouth and gullet of a human. If a creature of this appearance had once existed, it would still exist now. Here is the truth: at the time that Ixion was king of Thessaly, a herd of bulls gathered on Mt Pelion, cutting off access to the other mountains. The bulls would come down to where humans lived, ruin trees and crops and destroy their farm animals. And so Ixion announced that he would give a great amount of money to whomever killed the bulls. Some young men from the foothills, from a town called ‘Nephele’, contrived to teach their horses to carry riders. (Before this they did not know how to ride horses, only how to use them to draw chariots.) They then mounted their horses and rode to where the bulls were, and attacked the herd by hurling javelins at them. Whenever they were rushed by the bulls, the youths would manage to retreat – for their horses could outpace them. But when the bulls came to a stop, they would turn and hurl their javelins. Using these tactics, they killed them, and earned the name ‘Centaurs’ since they ‘pierced the bulls’. (The name did not come from their having the appearance of bulls, for Centaurs do not have the appearance of a bull, but of a horse and a human). So the name came from this event.

The Centaurs got money from Ixion, and their pride in their achievement and their wealth grew into arrogance: they committed many brutal acts, especially against Ixion himself. Ixion resided in what is now called Larissa, although at the time the people who lived there were called ‘Lapiths’. The Lapiths invited the Centaurs to a feast; the Centaurs got drunk and carried off their wives: they bundled the women onto their horses and fled homeward. From that position, they made war on the Lapiths, descending onto the plain by night, they would hide, then burn and pillage by day before returning to the mountains. When they rode away in this manner, all that was visible to those watching them from a distance were their backs: like a horse but without a horse’s head, then the rest like a human, but without the legs. Onlookers, describing this strange sight, would say: ‘The Centaurs, from Nephele, are attacking us!’ And from such statements, and their appearance, the unbelievable myth was fabricated, that from a cloud a ‘horse-man’ was produced on the mountain.

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Our article examines the way in which this passage by Palaephatus affected later traditions about the Centaurs in classical and early medieval sources. We examine medical texts, epic poetry, manuals on rhetoric, and Christian histories.

The article is freely available via open access. Merry Christmas! I really hope you enjoy reading it. It was a blast researching and writing this, and some of what I discovered might just wind up being worked into one of my historical fantasy novels in the near future…

Until next time, I hope you have a very Merry Christmas and a happy new year!

Valete

Depictions of Troy in Historical Fiction

Salvete, readers!

After a couple of weeks of posts concerned with WWI, we now return to our regular programming to discuss historical fiction. Anachronism can be a dirty word when it comes to evaluating historical fiction. By and large, I would agree that blatant anachronism can be dangerous when it undermines the story. However, I would also argue that when used carefully there is a place for anachronism in historical story-telling. I’ve written previously about how complaining about anachronism sucks the fun out of everything. But anachronism can also be put to good use, if used in a conscientious way. I’m going to use examples from the Trojan War, simply because it’s a topic in which I’ve researched pretty thoroughly.

Numerous novels set in the Trojan war run with the Homeric tradition that the Trojans were more or less the same as the Greeks, eg. Colleen McCollough’s Song of Troy and David Malouf’s Ransom. In these stories, Greeks and Trojans speak the same language, worship the same gods, and share the same material culture. The power structures in Greek and Trojan society are organised in more or less the same manner. The idea that the Troy was a mirror image of Greece is in no way historically probable, and if we are trying to understand the novel using the restrictive framework of accuracy, it will fail dismally.

In fact, the historical Troy was in all likelihood a Hittite colony. Eric Shanower picked up this idea and ran with it to great effect in his magnificent Age of Bronze comic book series. His depiction of Troy was hugely effective in that it subverted the reader’s expectations. Another great example of a novel which honours the historical Troy’s Hittite origins is Judith Starkson’s Hand of Fire. Shanower and Starkson deserve kudos for their detailed research and the dense, richly layered depiction of Hittite culture.

However, even as I acknowledge the power of historical verisimilitude in these narratives, I would argue that the traditional depiction of Troy as a kind of Greek polis still honours the story’s historical roots in that it reflects the cultural milieu which produced the Iliad and Odyssey, the primary textual sources for the Trojan War. In this context it can be very effective for the historical fiction author to evoke a sense of time and place rather than to rigidly adhere to the facts, archaeological or otherwise.

Sometimes we imagine that archaeology is an impartial science which provides unquestionable fact. Problem is, there’s no such thing. Archaeology is just as much influenced by the vicissitudes of historical circumstance as any other discipline. Here I think it’s useful to consider the thoughts of classical archaeologist (and spy!) Jerome Sperling is illustrative. When he wasn’t relaying information to the allies, Sperling participated in Carl Blegen’s pivotal excavations at Troy. Blegen’s interpretations of the site were strongly criticised by later archaeologists, who argued that he allowed his experiences of seeing cities levelled by enemy bombing in WWII to influence his interpretation of the destruction of Troy. Questioned about it decades later on Michael Wood’s documentary series In Search of the Trojan War, Sperling responded:

To me it doesn’t have any great significance, this criticism, because everybody’s Troy is different from everybody else’s Troy. It depends on what blend you make of the poetry you’ve read or how much of the archaeology and you care about it, and how much you use your own imagination… I don’t see the need for identifying Agamemnon, say, as being the person there at the end of Troy VIIA. I mean I’m thrilled by, I’m overpowered by Homeric poetry, and I think everyone is who reads it carefully. It’s an over-powering experience. But that doesn’t make it, doesn’t have to make it historical, because you see poetic truth comes in the people that he talks about, their hopes and despair and problems and conflict. That’s where the truth of it is.

So there you have it. I think that if a renowned archaeologist (and puncher of Nazis) can recognise that the power of the Troy lies as much in story-telling as historical veracity, then surely novelists can too.

Until next time,

Valete

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

My writerly week, ending 10 March

Salvete, readers! Great to have you here.

It’s been another mad, mad, mad week. Let’s just jump to it.

Writerly things achieved this week:

Creative work

  • Wrote a scene on an audio drama I’m co-writing. The story involves archaeology. And spaceships. And pirates. And ghosts. Things are moving to make the production happen. Recording is going to be a hoot.
  • Made a bit of progress on the current novel based on Beowulf. I wrote draft 1 ages ago, but after some revisions the first chapter is finally taking a shape I like. Bit by bit, the novel grows. I’m not one of those authors who can belt out thousands of words in a single sitting. For me, it’s more like cultivating a plant. It takes patience. And that’s okay.
  • Started reading a new book. This one combines two of my great loves: Greek myth and rural Queensland. Yep, you read that right. Can’t wait to share my review.
  • Surprised to find my Twitter flourishing. Blushed when one of my favourite authors shared one of my tweets. That counts as a little win, right?

Academic stuff

  • Got some superlative news on the publishing front. Thanks largely to the help of my amazing co-author, a new project will be announced soonish. Can’t say too much yet, but we had an idea for a book years ago, which is moving at last from the world of ideas into the world of reality. Watch this space!
  • Gathered together more research materials for that article on Centaurs, roughed out an argument. Remind self how amazing it feels to be writing on Centaurs. Also learned a bit more about the history of rhetoric. I once had a lecturer tell me that normal people don’t enjoy rhetoric… And, um, I really can’t dispute that point.
  • Translated a bit more of Palaephatus’s On Unbelievable Tales and Ps. Nicolaus. Surprised at how much I appreciate Palaephatus’s style, but still not convinced that Centaurs aren’t real. Sorry, Palaephatus.
  • Agreed to write some guest blog posts and contribute to a major international research project on the reception of classics in children’s literature. I can’t wait to share it with you!

Blimey. Honestly, it sometimes feels like I’m not getting enough done, day to day. But when I look back on it like this it doesn’t seem so bad. Huzzah!

Until next time,

Valete