2018: The Road Ahead

Salvete, readers!

Happy new year!

I’m a bit on the fence about new year’s resolutions. They never seem to work out, because they tend to be unrealistic. At the same time I’m also a big believer in having a clear sense of the path I’m on, so I do make concrete plans for the year ahead.

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In terms of my writing career, my ultimate goal is of course to reach the point where I can write full-time. But it takes a lot of work to get there, and that’s what this year is all about. So here is my list of writing and research priorities for the new year!

On the research front, I’m teaming up with classical archaeologist Dr Amelia Brown to co-write a really exciting academic book! Our project will feature the first translations of the early sources associated with St. Nicholas of Myra, along with a commentary. Yes, that St. Nick! For me, this all started when I went to do some research for an historical novel about St Nicholas, and then I was shocked to discover that most of the sources for his life hadn’t been translated from Greek. This is the first time research for my historical fiction has led me to produce original academic research. I’m looking forward to sharing what we discover.

In the world of commercial fiction, the Ashes of Olympus trilogy kicks off mid-2018 with the first instalment, The Way Home. I am gearing up to work with my editor and market the book. I’ve already contacted a few bookstores in my local area, and they seem interested in stocking it. Yay, Dymocks! Yay, indie bookstores! You guys are the best. I’ve also devised a pretty thorough plan to promote the book online and have set aside a budget for advertising and a book launch. Oh, the book launch! I’m looking forward to organising that, it’ll be so much fun. You’re all invited, of course! The more the merrier! And though I will be attending a few cons and such to promote it face-to-face, the bulk of the promo will take place online. Makes sense, as I’m working with a digital-first publisher. The strength of the story is probably the biggest factor in attracting readers, or so I’d like to think. People fall in love with your characters and your world. That’s why one of the keys to promoting the book online is a prequel short story, which I intend to release for free to all the major online retailers via Draft2Digital. Keep your eyes peeled!

I’m also going to start seeking a publisher for The Black Unicorn, my middle-grade fantasy in which Celtic myth meets steampunk. I had initially intended to publish it independently, but I’m taking the advice of a few people in the industry and seeking a traditional publisher before I go down that path. Finding readers is an uphill battle to begin with for an indie author, and just about impossible for children’s books. The market for children’s ebooks just doesn’t seem to exist. I’m really excited to start the next leg of my publication journey. And I have a feeling won’t be quite as tough to get published this time, because I have a foot in the door. I’m just about finished the first draft, which I have been serialising via Wattpad. The serial has been on hiatus over the Christmas period, but I look forward to continuing the updates next weekend. I’ve written loads which I haven’t yet shared. Once the serialisation is complete, I’ll probably leave it up for a month or so before taking it down and giving it a good polish.

But mostly, I am really looking forward to getting a copy printed and bound and giving it to my son for his birthday. Without him, the story wouldn’t exist. Even if it doesn’t get published, it will all be worthwhile to see the look on his face when he unwraps it.

After that, it’s time to get cracking on the next Ashes of Olympus, whose working title is The Ivory Gate. Guess what? I have about 60,000 words down on it already, so that will largely be a matter of refining what I’ve already got. I’ve got my work cut out for me. I’m looking forward to making my story the best it can be. After June, that’s probably where the bulk of the writerly work will go.

There are also a couple of projects which have been in the works for a long time, but which I haven’t discussed much online. Probably the most exciting for me is The Ravenglass Adventures, an audio drama series I’m co-writing with my friend Chris Spensley. It’s a pulpy sci-fi serial about a teenage space archaeologist named Philia Ravenglass. After some very helpful and encouraging notes from an experienced screenwriter, we’re doing a few tweaks to the pilot script. After that, we plan to record later in the year and release it for free as a podcast. We have assembled an amazing cast, and I can’t wait to share the story with you. Post-production will be a lengthy process, and we’re doing this in our spare time, so I cannot say yet when the show will be released, but you’ll be the first to know when it becomes available.

That’s about it, as far as the major projects go. At least, that’s as much as I can share for now. I do have a couple of little surprises up my sleeve… Short stories and interactive fiction and the like. Whew! It’s going to be a great year. It does seem like a lot, but much of it is bringing work to completion which has been in the pipeline for a while. Stay tuned.

Until next time,

Valete

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

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.