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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Writing lessons from the Epic of Gilgamesh

Salvete, readers!

I recently finished the first draft of The Black Unicorn, a middle-grade fantasy. The first draft will be up on Wattpad until the end of March, 2018. At this point, I’ll take it down and give it a good polish before I start submitting to publishers. In the meantime, I thought I’d let you in on a little secret. Though the story is heavily influenced by medieval and classical traditions, I actually went a lot further back for inspiration—all the way to ancient Sumer. In this blog post, I share how studying The Epic of Gilgamesh helped me to develop as a fantasy writer.

For a fantastic overview of the ancient poem and its relevance for modern readers, check out Louise Pryke’s excellent essay on The Conversation.

The Black Unicorn is the fifth book I’ve written, but only the second since completing Book 1 of the Ashes of Olympus trilogy, which is scheduled for publication in July. Writing a middle grade novel was simultaneously easier and more difficult. On the one hand, I feel a lot more confident in my craft and I think I have a stronger grasp on structure, dialogue, and world-building. I’m a lot more conscious about how and when to use different techniques. On the other hand, this was my first attempt at a heroic fantasy for middle grade readers, and that brought its own challenges. When you write middle grade fiction, you have only the most primal elements of story-telling in your tool kit. You don’t have the space to gloss any shortcomings of substance with style. I decided to embrace the primal elements of story-telling in The Black Unicorn by going back to The Epic of Gilgamesh for inspiration regarding the themes.

The Epic of Gilgamesh is the first recorded story in human history, so I figured it was a good blueprint for an archetypal narrative. The themes of the epic are as relevant today as they were millennia ago—relationships between humanity and the divine, the nature of mortality, the tension between nature and civilisation, and above all friendship. These themes pervade all my stories, but in The Black Unicorn I wanted to explore them through the eyes of a twelve-year-old girl. I see no reason the heroic archetype of the youthful warrior can’t be made to fit a female character, and honestly, I think we need more heroines in the world. At the heart of my story, as in Gilgamesh, is a relationship between two characters who start out as rivals and through a series of shared trials become friends. Though it takes place against a backdrop with a massive scope, that’s the essence of the novel.

Brevity is another virtue of Gilgamesh. The poem comprises only about 60 pages in the Penguin translation. But in that space our heroes travel across the world and learn lessons about life and death. Likewise, middle grade books are short. The Black Unicorn is only about 40,000 words. There’s no time for navel-gazing. The characters develop through actions and reactions to changes in their situation. That doesn’t mean there’s no room for character development of course. Heck, I would argue that growth and development are integral to any narrative focused on children. It just means there is very little time for introspection or excessive narration. The characters show us who they are and who they are becoming through their decisions. Dynamism is the key.

The Epic of Gilgamesh also embodies one of the core principles of world-building: show, don’t tell. If you read it, you’re plonked into another universe. Though it’s easy to sympathise with the characters, there is no point denying that the poem is the product of an alien world. It’s a dark, frightening place where existence is precarious and world-ending catastrophes are always just around the corner. But the text never stops to explain how its world works. The narrator takes it as a given that readers can pick up the story and run with it. Four thousand years ago, the reader needed no more explanation of the mechanics of sacrifice than we do on how to send a text message. For modern readers, though, the trick is to immerse yourself in the world and drink it in. And once you get the hang of the internal logic, the story makes perfect sense. This is an excellent principle, I think, for writing fantasy, particularly in a middle-grade novel where there is little room to pause for info-dump.

There’s a lot more I could say, and I’d love to revisit the question of what story-tellers can learn from the classics. But for now, my kids are tugging on my sleeve demanding I take them to the library.

Until next time,

Valete

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

My writerly month, September 2017

Salvete, readers!

I trust we all made it through September intact? It was another frantic month for me, but I accomplished a few things I’m proud of.

A few months ago I mentioned that I had co-written an article on mythography with two amazing co-authors, Dr Greta Hawes and Prof Minerva Alganza Roldán. Guess what? The article passed peer review with only a few minor amendments, and will be included in Polymnia this December. Keep your eyes peeled for: “The reception history of Palaephatus 1 (On the Centaurs) in Ancient and Byzantine texts.” I’m really excited by the opportunity to share some cool things my co-authors and I have discovered. We are now among the select few who can honestly proclaim themselves experts regarding the gastronomic habits of Centaurs. And guess what? The best bit is that it’s an open access journal, so it won’t be behind a paywall. Huzzah!

I got a few other things done. During my holidays I managed to bang out more on the middle-grade novel I’m working on with my seven-year-old. Or rather, I’m working on it, and he passes me notes like some Hollywood producer. It’s getting harder as it goes along, to be honest. He was so enthusiastic early on, and we built up great creative energy as we constructed a world together and populated it with characters and creatures. It all started when he wanted a sword-and-sorcery style adventure which featured automatons and submarines. Why not? From there I built upon my knowledge of medieval folklore and combined it with my interest in Roman Britain. The result is basically Celtic myth meets steampunk, with bonus talking animals. It’s absolutely as bonkers as it sounds, and I’m loving the journey. More than that, I loved the experience of creating a world together and reading him a chapter every second night.

Problem is, he was under the impression the whole book would be written in a day or two. Three, tops. And then it would be in the shops a couple of weeks later. Wouldn’t that be nice? Nothing I said would convince him otherwise. When he finally realised how long it takes to write a novel, he decided it would be much more fun to create his own comic book about surviving on a deserted island. In the meantime, he’s moved onto other bedtime stories (Mission Fox! Beast Quest! Yay!) and I’ve lost my deadline. Damn, blast, botheration! I was counting on that deadline. It stopped me dithering over the chapters, as I had to produce one every two days. That’s okay. He still wants me to finish the story and read it to him in full when it’s done. He’s still excited about it, and I think he appreciates me writing a story for him. I need to give him the room he needs to become his own creative person.

In the meantime, the story’s become more of a hard slog. I think that’s pretty normal for a writer, isn’t it? I’m two thirds of the way through draft 1, and I want it out of the way by Christmas. There. That’ll be my deadline. It’ll have to do.

I also spent a bit of my holiday reading the ARC of Back to Reality by Mark Stay and Mark Oliver. I’ve been listening to their podcast, The Bestseller Experiment, for a long time now, learning along with the two Marks as they set out to write, publish and market their novel in just a year. The podcast itself is pure gold—it’s like getting free admission to a writer’s workshop every single week as they interview various authors (both indie and traditional) and people who work in different aspects of the publishing industry. I’ll admit that I had some trepidation as I opened the file on my e-reader. What if, after looking forward to the story for so long, it turned out to be a complete car crash? I needn’t have worried. The book is good. Really bloody good. I’ll post a full review when it’s released on October 16. For now, I always gain a sense of accomplishment from helping out fellow authors. We’re all in this together.

Until next time,

Valete

My writerly month: May 2017

Salvete, readers!

Well, we made it to the end of May. Queensland is a bit like Westeros at the moment: winter is coming, but it never quite gets here. Remember a while ago I asked readers’ opinions as to whether I should keep up the weekly updates on progress? Well, after thinking about the feedback I got, as well as my current schedule of deadlines, I opted for a monthly update.

On the academic front, my co-authors and I have put together a complete draft of the article we’re working on. We are well on track to get it out this month. Mythography is an amazing, highly technical area of scholarship which requires expertise in a range of disciplines. It’s also a lot of fun because you discover the weirdest and most wonderful things! I don’t know any other area where you’re called upon to consider the reproductive or dietary habits of Centaurs. I wonder if some of this detail might actually work its way into a novel someday. That said, typing in Greek is pretty much the opposite of fun. My poor word processor hates me right now.

Aside from that, I’ve finally figured out a fiction writing routine that seems to work. Huzzah! When you sit in front of your keyboard and your aim is to bang out a novel, that can be pretty daunting. The challenge seems insurmountable. Know why? Because it is! Especially when you’re working on an academic career and working full-time and raising a young family. Even among full-time writers, very few are capable of producing a novel quickly. Those who pull it off may very well be in league with the devil. The trick is to focus on one chapter at a time, one scene at a time. I’ve also set myself a weekly task—no matter what, I need to do one chapter per week, minimum, with a set word limit. This method of ‘chunking’ the tasks makes the weekly goal is very achievable. My eyes are still on the prize of having a finished novel, but week to week I’m no longer agonising about my productivity. Which, ironically, drives up productivity. Chunking is good for the story too. The pace remains high. Without room to waffle, every scene counts. It also provides a sense of rhythm. Things have been rocking and rolling since I adopted this method, and I’ve got a substantial portion of the manuscript down.

I’ve also been doing a lot of research into the publishing industry and where it’s headed. Listening to podcasts, talking to other authors about their experiences. In particular, I’ve been investigating the world of indie publishing. For now, my plan is still to seek a traditional publisher for my trilogy based on the Aeneid. But I’m also open to the possibility of publishing independently. No matter which way I go, the idea is to get better as an author. Connecting with even a small cohort of readers would help me to grow. And getting a behind the scenes look into the industry would be an amazing asset no matter what. Commercial writers can also learn a lot from indie authors, given that even in commercial fiction so much of the onus for marketing falls on the author.

The world is changing, isn’t it? We may be heading toward a time when writers need to show they’ve got the chops to make it on their own before a publisher will pick them up—especially when I see that Macmillan—one of the Big Five—has acquired the ebook distributor Pronoun.

Anyway. Work is progressing on the script for the audio drama, bit by bit. Writing for radio is really peculiar, but I’m enjoying the challenge. Will tell you more about that when it’s ready to go into production.

Anyway. I’ve signed up for a local authors’ event in a couple of weeks, which is thrilling. If funds allow it, I’m heading to the CYA conference in Brisbane next month. Really looking forward to meeting up with some like-minded people. Maybe I’ll see you there?

Until next time,

Valete

Book review! Runestone: Book One of Viking Magic

Salvete, readers!

This week I’m reviewing the first book of the Viking Magic series by Anna Cidor, Runestone. It’s a middle grade historical fantasy based on Norse mythology, so it’s kind of my thing.

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Historical fantasy occupies a unique space in the world of genre fiction. You’ve got to deal with the unreal world of the supernatural, but within the constraints of historical authenticity. Writing for children brings its own set of challenges. Where do child protagonists fit in a world whose concept of childhood was so different from our own? How do you forge a connection between past and present? And if you’re writing about Northern Europe of the Middle Ages, you’ve got to deal with the Tolkien factor as well—so many features of the Norse sagas have become fantasy tropes via The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. Anna Cidor deals with these challenges well by side-stepping many of the clichés about Viking society.

The newborn Thora’s father has no interest in raising a daughter. He wants a strong young boy to help him out on the family farm. Oddo, meanwhile, is born into a family whose children learn magic before they can walk. To save Thora from being abandoned in the woods, the village midwife switches them at birth. Years later, Oddo shows no aptitude for farming, but constantly has to suppress his talent for magic. Thora loves working with her hands and making things grow, but has no magical ability whatsoever. When their paths meet, Thora and Oddo embark upon a journey to discover where they fit into this world.

It’s a simple story, well told. Oddo and Thora are charming characters who inhabit a world rich in detail. In the construction of her setting, Cidor pays as much attention to the natural world as the artificial, from the soapstone crockery to the alder wood trees. Her research into Norse social history really shows. The rhythm of the characters’ lives is determined by the seasons, as it should be for an agrarian culture. The characters live on the land and occasionally play at being warriors, not the other way around. If you wanted a story of axe-wielding sea-raiders or horned helmets, you’ve come to the wrong place. The system of magic is thoroughly embedded in medieval folklore and thus integrates nicely into the setting. I can’t fault Cidor’s research or her dedication to world-building.

That said, I question a few of the decisions in terms of authenticity. At times, the dialogue jars as it veers from the quaint to the modern. On the one hand, I think it makes sense for the dialogue to be idiomatic and casual. There’s nothing worse than highfaluting old-timey speak in historical fiction. On the other hand, well, the word ‘okay’ in a medieval setting just doesn’t feel right. While I appreciate that this world is essentially the author’s own, I never really got a sense of the geography or historical period. We get a fairly generic Northern European landscape, and the characters don’t seem to identify with any particular clan group. Anything resembling organised religion is notable by its absence. We get a kind of paganism minus gods—not one of the Asgardians rates a mention. This seems particularly odd when the story is about Viking magic. Surely Odin should at least be referred to, given that he was so closely associated with magic? I think adding a further layer of historical detail would have helped the story to feel less like a medieval fantasy and more like a fantasy novel which happens to be set in the middle ages.

Yet for every quibble there’s a stroke of genius. For instance, I love the use of ‘seethe’ as a verb for using a spell, rather than the more usual ‘casting.’ I’m guessing this is a transliteration of an Old Norse word for sorcery, seidr. If I’m right, this simple word-choice shows real sympathy for the historical past. Touches like this outweigh any drawbacks. With its likeable protagonists and compelling narrative, Runestone is an excellent first volume of what promises to be a thrilling series for children.

Until next time,

Valete

My writerly week, ending 5 May, 2017

Salvete, readers!

This week has been very much focused on academic writing. Good news, though! I finally knocked out my contribution to an article and sent the draft to my co-authors. It still needs some work, but it feels great to see a research project that started twelve months ago come to fruition.

I’m now going to focus on blogging and my fiction for a couple of weeks, before turning to the next academic project. I’m ecstatic about this next novel– it’s based on one of my favourite epic poems, Beowulf. I’ve written a draft of some early chapters, then realised I didn’t like the direction it was going down. So I decided to take it back to the drawing board and let it simmer for a few weeks while I worked on an academic project. In the meantime, I downloaded a series of recorded lectures on Beowulf and Norse history. This is one of the things I love about writing. It’s a fantastic vehicle for self-education and growth. And now, after a bit of cogitating on it (read: daydreaming), I’ve got a much clearer sense of where the story needs to go and who my characters are.

And we’re off to a flying start!

The only thing which could impede my productivity at this point is Netflix– I just joined and am slightly overwhelmed by the sheer amount of shows on there. On the one hand, it’s a bit of a time-sucker. On the other, good writing tends to inspire good writing, and by golly there’s some amazing writing in television right now. And then there’s Roman Empire: Reign of Blood, which is… not so amazing. In the meantime, I’m absolutely open to recommendations about Netflix shows.

Oh, and another thing I’m really looking forward to: I’m beta reading a good friend’s script! I love beta reading– I always learn so much, and it feels great to help out fellow writers.

In the meantime, O faithful reader, I have a question for you. Yes, you! How are you enjoying these updates on my writerly weeks? I’ve been contemplating the idea of dropping back to doing one per month. I find them a good way to keep myself accountable and it helps me a lot to look back and realise I have actually accomplished things. And yet I know it can get a bit repetitive to read what amounts to ‘wrote stuff, read stuff, thought about it a bit’ every single week. Let me know in the comments if you’re enjoying these posts, and I’ll let you know what I decide.

Until next time,

Valete

 

 

 

 

Historical howlers

Salvete, readers!

I’ve written a few posts now which talked about the ideas of historical authenticity vs historical accuracy. Here’s the long and the short of it. Basically, I don’t think the concept of ‘accuracy’ in historical fiction is all it’s cracked up to be. What’s important is that the story feels real and remains sympathetic to historical sources. Anachronisms are a problem insofar as they undermine the reader’s ability to buy into your world. In fact, there are instances where careful and conscious employment of anachronism can result in strong story-telling.

Good gravy, it reads like a manifesto, doesn’t it?

That said, I do want to stress there are definitely instances in which anachronism can have a disastrous effect upon the sense of authenticity. I’m not talking about the decision to, say, invent a scenario in which two historical characters meet when they couldn’t have. I’m talking about silly mistakes that make it glaringly apparent that the author hasn’t thought about their world deeply or done a lot of research. For a lot of readers of historical fiction, that can be a deal-breaker. On a deep and fundamental level, historical howlers can undermine an author’s voice. The illusion that this story could be true falls away to reveal an author who is visiting the past like a tourist. When anachronism undermines the world-building, the entire story is going to fall down. Let’s have a look at a few examples.

For whatever reason, food is one of the most common places where howlers occur. I don’t know why descriptions of meals are so galling when the author gets it wrong—maybe it’s because sharing a meal together is such a universal human experience, and because it is a classic setting for character development. So when I read stories of, say, peasants in early medieval Ireland tucking into potatoes… well, suddenly the story doesn’t feel real any more. Potatoes, after all, come from the Americas and were hence unknown in Europe until after Columbus. But they quickly became common fare, so I guess they’ve become shorthand for peasantry. Gosh, I remember grinding my teeth when I saw peasants hurling tomatoes on Merlin for much the same reason.

Leaving the middle ages aside, howlers like this really grate when the author is writing about historical experiences within living memory. Kathryn Gossow (author of the contemporary fantasy Cassandra, which is really good and I recommend it highly), pointed out on one of my previous posts that it doesn’t make sense for a story set in 1950s Australia to feature a working class family sitting down to a hearty meal of mac and cheese. Really it should be meat and veg. A really clear sense of world history is your best friend when it comes to writing about food—not just the nitty gritty details of a particular time and place, but a clear sense of the ‘big picture’ of history around the globe.

I think howlers become a serious problem when they undermine characterisation. I’m going to use another example from a very popular historical fantasy series set in ancient Rome—I’d rather not say which one. It’s a first-person narrative. We are inside the protagonist’s head for the duration of the novel, and so I’d argue that it is extra important to keep the story feeling authentic. One of the subplots revolves around an infected wound. And that’s fine, infection was rife before the age of antibiotics. You could die of a broken bone in antiquity. The issue is that the protagonist describes it in terms of ‘infection.’ As in, he seems to be aware of bacteria. Now, the Greeks and Romans were well aware of the process of corruption. Aristotle devoted an entire treatise to the subject. And yet to have the character diagnose himself using the modern medical term has an effect like crunching gears on a car. It’s unpleasant to the ear and bad for the mechanics. The protagonist doesn’t sound Roman anymore—it’s become a generic fantasy with Romanesque costumes. Sometimes historical authenticity comes down to something as simple as word choice.

To avoid howlers, I always recommend digging into the primary sources for the period—newpapers, diaries, and especially novels from the time you’re depicting. Not just to mine for details, but to get a sense of the voice, the way people talked and thought.

And you know what? I’m also going to recommend a resource: Susanne Alleyne’s Medieval Underpants and Other Blunders. It’s an awesome little reference guide. The examples used in this book do tend to gravitate strongly toward a European and American context, which makes sense given the author’s historical interests. However, it also gives a really good, solid grounding in the methodology for avoiding historical howlers. And, you know, if you want to know a bit about medieval undies, it’s a great place to look.

And on that lovely note…

Valete

My writerly week, ending 28 April, 2017

Salvete, readers.

I’ve crawled across the finish line this week, and I’m weary. And yet I do have a few things to celebrate.

  • One of the highlights of this week was when a friend of mine showed me a photo he’d taken at the Classical Association’s annual conference– my academic book was on sale at the Routledge table! And another written by a colleague which I had proofread. I’m really happy that Tertullian and the Unborn Child is reaching people who will find it helpful, and that my efforts do make a difference in this world.
  • After a very intense month in my day job, I decided to carve out some time this weekend to focus on my creative pursuits. I decided to add a few key details to my novel based on the Aeneid, added a new scene to the radio play I’m co-writing, and pushed the next novel forward another few steps.
  • By the end of this weekend, I aim to have my contribution to an academic article done and dusted. It’ll be so great to have that Centaur off my back– hoofs hurt more than monkey paws!

I listened to a podcast this week–The Bestseller ExperimentHave you heard it? It is kind of brilliant. Basically these two guys (whose names, confusingly, are both Mark) have set out to write, publish and market a bestselling novel in one year. Every week they interview somebody from the publishing industry. Whether it’s an author, publisher, editor, agent, or a number-cruncher, the guests share their secrets to success in the world of book publishing. I wish the guys who run the podcast loads and loads of luck, though I suspect that the aim to produce a ‘bestselling’ novel in just a year may be an exercise in hubris. That said, the podcast is really informative and entertaining. I did a literal spit-take when they interviewed Ben Aaronovitch, and the interview with Bryan Cranston is amazingly insightful. Not only am I learning a lot about how the industry works, but I love the sense of connection with all these people who love books and contribute to our literary culture. At the end of the day, whether as big-time mainstream novelists or as indie authors, we’re all in this together. And, yeah, I can dream about being on the show someday. Well done, Marks, you’ve inspired me.

I’d love to talk about building upon one’s academic cred to make a career as a novelist. And compare and contrast modern and ancient means of storytelling. What can we learn from the ancients? How have we progressed? In some ways, have we come full circle?

Or, you know, I could just write a blog post about it.

Well, that’s about that for this week. Thanks as ever for sticking with me, folks. Building a community is one of the main functions of story-telling, as I see it. The writer’s journey can be impossible if you go it alone, but it gives me courage to know that my words reach others, and it’s so heartwarming to hear of others’ success.

Until next time,

Valete