Sunday, December 27, 2009

A Magical Winter's Read

I thought I would mention a collection of early Welsh tales which I recently finished re-reading which pre-date both Geoffrey of Monmouth and Chretien de Troyes known as the Mabinogi. Around the holidays I always pick one of the old texts out of my library and dive in - perhaps it is the sense of magic and tradition that surrounds Christmas time that draws me to these texts. Last year it was Dante's Divine Comedy, this year my heart returned to Arthurian tradition and I was not disappointed.

I had indeed forgotten what a great read the tales of the Mabinogi truly are. The Welsh Triads are among the most transporting tales, especially Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed. It is not a lengthy tale but long enough to enjoy as you sit with your favourite glass of something beside your burning Yule log. Pwyll entrances the reader with the Prince's meeting with and marriage to Rhiannon, an otherworldly princess who is usually equated with the horse goddess, Epona. I won't tell you any more in case you are inclined to read it but this tale is full of Celtic archtypes that illustrate the richness of the Welsh, Arthurian tradition. As you read this, you will be transported into the Celtic otherworld of Annwn where time is not what it seems and where a mortal can live a dream beside animals of legend.

Here's wishing that those who celebrate it have had a magnificent Christmas and Yuletide and may you all have a 2010 that is full of good fortune, happiness and of course, magic.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Happy Saturnalia!

Salvete, readers! Whoever you may be. I'm back from black oblivion the other side of the dark river. No, I didn't die and go on a pleasure cruise with Acheron (which would be frightening enough) but my computer certainly did die and I, like Odysseus seeking Tyresias' wisdom, made a terrifying, uncertain journey across the Styx into the strange world of leaky capacitors, and dead motherboards. I had thought that technology was my friend but in this unknown realm of computer mortification I was haunted by the ghosts of files not backed up, including part of my new book.

Thankfully, Peter the computer guy, was able to perform a feat of Aesclepian proportions and resuscitate my computer. We're back in the land of the wired and connected living and I have learned a very valuable lesson from blind Tyresias: BACK UP ALL FILES REGULARLY! Seeing as I don't have an army of monks copying things out for me in the drafty hall of some Romanesque monastery, dvds shall have to suffice.

At any rate, I'm back on the blog and the files are saved. Happy Saturnalia!

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Writing Religion

One aspect of life that inevitably crops up in reading or writing historical fiction is religion, the beliefs, practices and rituals of faith in the world and time surrounding the characters. Many writers manage to avoid the religious aspects of life in their work, and who can blame them? Religion adds a whole other layer to a story that could threaten to overtake things. But why would one want to ignore such a deep and personal connection to a place and time, a connection that could draw the reader closer to the people populating a particular age? It may be easier to ignore religion but the story will definitely be lacking in a sense.

Part of the problem is that many of the people inhabiting this modern, quick-paced world of ours have lost touch and can not relate to the feelings of faith that were felt by our ancestors and which were, for the most part, part of the every day.

This might not apply so much to religions that are still in strong existence to this day such as Hinduism, Judaism, and Buddhism or the younger religions of Christianity and Islam - when writing about these, the problem for the writer is more about being accurate and careful not to offend anyone simply because they still have large followings. There should always be a deep respect for people's beliefs.

When writing about the ancient polytheistic religions of Greece, Rome and Egypt there is a two-part conundrum. Firstly, depending on the sources available, it might not be very easy to attain a level of accuracy regarding a particular religion. Secondly, how can a writer overcome the barrier that is the modern mind in order to draw a reader in and make it believable?

On the first point, research is essential as well as visiting the sites about which you are writing. If written sources are scant, then going to a place to "feel the vibe" can sometimes help to give texture to your scenes. The ancient religions had been around for much longer than, say, Christianity and Islam have to date. The faith of many thousands (millions?) of believers over the centuries leaves an indelible, if not intangible, mark on a place. In my own experience, the sanctuaries of Olympia, Delphi and Elefsis in Greece, or even the temples of the Forum Romanum in Rome still resonate with the faith of ages and in some of these spots flowers are still laid for the powers that were. However, when the sources regarding religious practices are scant and when it is impossible to visit a site, it is the writer's job to fill in the gaps as best he or she can. This can be an extremely fun exercise and usually, your characters will help you along.

The second part of the conundrum, of drawing in modern readers to make your characters' religion believable, is slightly more tricky. For many, the past is the past and as such has no legitimacy, especially ancient religions - although, those who think like this will probably not be reading historical fiction. Sadly there is a degree of arrogance in the modern mindset that tends to dismiss ancient, near extinct, religious beliefs as false and completely misguided. This is an unfortunate and close-minded point of view because it closes people off to understanding the past and well, exprencing some very exciting stories that in fact influenced and shaped the world we live in.

One thing about ancient religions is that they were very human religions with gods and goddesses that represented all that was beautiful and terrible in humanity be it Love, or War, Wisdom or Vengeance. There was a god or goddess for every aspect of life, every emotion, and as a result the gods and goddesses were an influence on and a part of everyday life. You can see it in ancient art and architecture, in a roughly carved figurine gathering dust in the corner of a museum, the wind-worn columns of temple ruins or a few lines from a sacred hymn whose utterance carried great weight long ago.

A writer should not shy from religion, the way we so often do in conversation these days, but rather show it for all that it is, drawing in the reader to open their mind and eyes and make the characters and story come to life in an infinitely more human way.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Hollywood Historicals

This is a frequent topic of conversation among historians and writers alike. The question is (in a very simplified form), is it good for Hollywood to be making historical films and are those that have been made any good?

This may turn out to be more of an opinion as I stand on my virtual soap box. I have a confession to make...wait for it...

...I am addicted to historical films. Yes, yes. I know. A good historian owning up to this is, well, death. However, I am a writer and storyteller before historian and I state it proudly (it used to be the other way around!). That is not to say that I do not want historical accuracy but it does mean that in fiction or movies, story must come first, then the other bits and pieces. I've already jumped into the topic, I suppose. There are constant complaints from some folks, mainly historians, that movies are horribly innacurate when it comes to the histories they are portraying. There are far too many historical films for me to look at all of them here but there are a few I would like to mention.

If you have seen them, who could forget the films that were made in the heyday of monumental production; films like Ben Hur and Cleopatra, 300 Spartans and Alexander the Great, or Quo Vadis and The Fall of the Roman Empire. Or other films like Robin Hood (Errol Flynn) and Ivanhoe.

The above films were widely popular in their day and most remain so, remain 'Classics'. When I began to really get in to history I was reading everything I could get my hands on but also watching every old film I could find - anything to immerse myself in the past. Now, the thing about the older films to a young viewer is that the film quality might not be that great or the costumes and fight scenes a little cheezy. Indeed they also contained many historical innacuracies, be they with regards to the clothing or armour or historical personages themselves. However, they still manage to draw us in because they have good, human stories, powerful stories that we can relate to, even now, built on themes of love, revenge, triumph in the face of incredible odds etc. Many was the history professor who looked on the older films with great fondness. Who can blame them?

However, some folks who claim to be great fans of the older films look with disdain on today's flashy renditions of these ancient tales. I'll never forget one professor who, upon hearing the excited talk of his students about Braveheart, sneared and said it was complete rubbish and totally inaccurate. Inaccurate it may be in some ways but it got most of the students excited and pumped about history. The medieval setting and the story of love and vengeance and a fight for freedom all resonated with the students and I found that to be quite a triumph on the part of the film makers. The same goes for the much-criticized Robin Hood Prince of Thieves with Kevin Costner. However bad some things might have been (including the accent) that movie sparked something in many young people and prompted them to go into medieval studies, to read more about the 12th century and the crusades (a topic we could still learn a lot from in today's world).

One of the most recent, successful examples of a Hollywood historical making a huge mark is Gladiator. This film resonated with folks across the world and sparked mass interest in ancient history and ancient Rome and was followed by masses of new documentaries. Most importantly, in my opinion, is that it made such an impact that enrollment in university classics programs more than doubled at some institutions. That certainly can't be a bad thing. One fellow said to me after the movie, "Ach, it was ok. The Romans didn't really fight like that though." Fair enough I suppose, but really, who cares? It was a fantastic visual and emotional journey that grabbed most viewers by the throat. Even the film's music (by Hans Zimmer and Lisa Gerrard) has provoked a new style of vocalization in movie music.

This is, of course, my opinion but as a historian, if it hooks people and gets them interested in history, it's great! As a writer, I am happy to be immersed in ancient and medieval settings, to be inspired by a good yarn and to enter a world that is now out of reach. I wish they would make more films like Gladiator, 300, King Arthur, Alexander and Tristan and Isolde.

After all, art truly inspires art and in this intensely visual and modern age that we live in, it is more important than ever to maintain an excited interest in the past in order that we may continue to learn from it.

Photo: Interior shot of the North African amphitheatre at Thugga (Tunisia) which inspired the African segment of Gladiator.

Saturday, October 10, 2009


All right, I admit it. I have neglected my blog of late but I have a good reason in that I was writing away on my third book in the Eagles and Dragons series. And so, I am reminded of how many sources I have relied on in my research for this series. Just as in writing an historical paper, writing historical fiction also involves a good deal of research and every writer has his or her favourite sources. So, I thought I would go over just a few of the very many books that I have made use of over the last few years in researching the Imperial Roman Army, Roman life and the Severan period in general.

Unfortunately, there is not a lot in the way of primary sources when it comes to the Severan period (roughly A.D. 193 onward to the late 3rd century). This is sad because at this time, especially the reign of Septimius Severus himself (A.D. 193-211), the Empire was at its greatest extent ever and the Parthian Empire had finally been defeated after failed attempts by both Crassus and Mark Antony. In addition, some of the most powerful women in the history of the Roman Empire lived at this time and had gathered learned men from around the world (the Syrian woman, including Empress Julia Domna) to come to the imperial court, there were great changes made to the army and the Praetorian Guard and an all out invasion of Caledonia (Scotland) was undertaken by Severus.

As I said, there are not many primary sources available but the most obvious one is Cassius Dio. Although much of what Dio writes must be taken with the proverbial grain of salt, he does provide good fodder for the historical novelist.

As far as secondary sources, there are many on the Roman army and some of those that have proved useful are: Adrian Goldsworthy's The Complete Roman Army; Yann Le Bohec's The Imperial Roman Army; and Lawrence Keppie's The Making of the Roman Army. A series that is also extremely useful is the Osprey Military series of books which give brief overviews of very specific topics with magnificent, historically accurate illustrations. These are just a few in a veritable sea of books on the Roman army and Roman warfare.

Just as there are scant primary sources about Septimius Severus and his successors, there are also few secondary sources. However, one of the few that does stand out is Michael Grant's The Severans: The Changed Roman Empire. Grant's book is a great glimpse of this crucial period in the history of the Roman Empire, a time that was truly a turning point in Rome's history and in hindsight the beginning of the end for the Empire. Pat Southern's The Roman Empire: From Severus to Constantine also provides useful information.

When it comes to every day life in ancient Rome, from religious festivals and money to amusements and pastimes, the Handbook to Life in Ancient Rome by Adkins and Adkins is a wonderful resource that every writer of fiction set in this period should have. There is also a Handbook to Life in Ancient Greece and a Handbook to Life in Ancient Egypt. I should note that these books are now difficult to find so, if you see one, grab it right away. Another aspect of the every day is clothing and one book that I found particularly useful was Roman Clothing and Fashion by A.T. Croom. After all, despite later views of ancient Rome and Romans, the people of the pre-Christian empire did wear clothing most of the time.

Finally, geography and terrain are also important for historical novelists. One must have a good (or several) map of the area about which you are writing. It might seem odd but some of the best maps that I have seen and used are the historical National Geographic maps of the Roman Empire and Ancient Greece; not only are they beautiful to look at, but they are easy to read and have little snippets of history dotted about. If your story is set in Britain, your best bet would be the historical maps put out by Ordnance Survey. There are maps of Roman and Medieval Britain as well as historical maps of ancient and medieval cities like London and York etc. Very useful!

As I said at the outset, these are but a few of the helpful sources that I have come across. The task of naming all good books on this subject is far too titanic for a blog entry. Every writer has his or her own favourites which they will go back to again and again. The above are just a few of my own. Hope you enjoy. Now, back to writing!
Above photo: altar inscription at the Sanctuary of Apollo outside of Sparta.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Time Traveller

As most writers of historical fiction know, one of the great joys and adventures of writing about the past is that you get to immerse yourself in another world, a time and place not your own. The research phase is like planning a trip in a way, what is there to see, which people might you run into along the way. Once that phase done and you have a framework for your journey, you are ready to step over the threshold of time.

Much of the action in my first two novels takes place in Roman North Africa, the provinces of Africa Proconsularis and Numidia (modern day Libya, Tunisia and Algeria). When I began my research travel to Libya and Algeria seemed a little unlikely, but when the opportunity arose to go on a safari of Roman sites in Tunisia came about, this writer jumped at the chance. The emperor at the time I write about was Septimius Severus, the eventual victor in the civil war that followed after the death of Commodus. Severus was from Leptis Magna, in Africa Province, and as a result much of his attention was focussed on this southern part of the empire.

In the second and third centuries A.D. the bread basket of the empire was no longer Egypt but rather the provinces of Africa and Numidia which provided grain, oil and garum (fish sauce) to the rest of the Roman world. The III Augustan Legion was also stationed in Numidia and because of the protection this afforded the population, as well as the prosperous economy of the region, many sprawling cities grew up along the coast, the green mountains of the north and the sandy edges of the Sahara itself.

When I set out on this journey I had no idea what I would find. What I expected was to at least get a sense of the place, the light, the smells, the feel of the sand. What my eyes beheld was much more. As we sped along the Tunisian countryside in our 4x4, our driver Samy laughing it up and ululating his hi-pitched voice, every site we came to was a complete eye-opener. The ruins were some of the most intact I had ever seen with paved city streets, the walls of houses, mosaics where they had been laid, open to the sky.

The ancient cities of Thurburbo Majus, and Thugga came to life with the voices of the past and each new site gave life to my setting and my characters. The amphitheatre of Roman Thysdrus juts out of the Numidian plain like a titan, more intact than the Colosseum in Rome and surrounded by the vast olive groves that made its builder so wealthy. I could hear the roar of the crowd in the stones, see the blood in the sand and breathe in the dry, sandy air of the desert as I sat in contemplation beneath a sunlit arch, a world away.

Another character in my work is the desert itself. My work might have been very different had I not been able to spend time in the Sahara, to see the towering dunes, visit its oases or walk barefoot in the sand. Truly, out in the desert, time does not exist; it's just you, the sand, the sky and, if you are a writer, your characters coming to life breath by glorious breath. The desert can grab hold of one so completely.

It is amazing that a place seemingly void of life can fire the imagination in such a way, but it can and must have done for the people who lived there or travelled through so many ages ago. Upon returning to Tunis our small group visited the Bardo Museum which has one of the finest collections of Roman mosaics in the world. It is here that one can see how life influenced art in ages past.

There has been much discussion about whether or not it is essential for a writer to visit the places about which they are writing. Opinion seems to be divided and really, at the end of the day, every writer or other artist functions in his or her own way.

The Internet has helped immeasurably when it comes to research, especially when writing about places where it might not be safe to set foot; alas the world is a strange place these days. But, for this tale spinner, there is no substitute for a trek to some far corner of the world to see a temple, a landscape or a square of sand-covered mosaic beneath a blue sky.

Just for Fun
In the first blog entry for this site I asked if anyone could guess where the mosaic in the photograph is from. The answer is from the House of the Dolphins on the Aegean Island of Delos. So, if you guessed correctly, Hail to the Victor!

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Inspired by Place

Two weeks ago I returned to Toronto after an entire summer in Greece, the Peloponnese near the island of Spetses to be exact. The writer and the historian in me are both inspired by place and in Greece the ancient landscape speaks to anyone who is willing to listen, be it a moss-covered column drum from a once beautiful temple, or even the shiver of the leaves on a single branch of olive along a country road. The voices of the past speak readily and from those voices come a wellspring of inspiration.

Now that I am back 'home' with the subway rumbling my flat and the idle of buses thrumming in the background, my longing is far more acute and I try to conjure up the images of this past summer as vividly as possible, in a way no digital picture can replicate. Sights, sounds, smells, textures, tastes, all of it. Right now I'm in danger of going off on a philosophical tangent but I can't seem to help myself. It is both exciting and humbling to set foot in a place where legends have trod, where gods were worshipped and heroes sailed (you can still find the occasional flower or olive branch carefully laid in offering on many ruins). I supposed the awe is something akin to what one feels upon entering the place of worship of his or her particular divinity; for this writer, the sea, the landscape, the very air of these ancient places are a sort of temple. The key however, is to leave.

I am constantly reminded of a quote by the writer John Fowles who used the island of Spetses as the setting for The Magus. In his forward to a later edition of The Magus, Fowles gives a phrase he and other artists of the time used to describe how they felt after returning home after a spell in Greece: the "Aegean Blues".

Fowles goes on to say:

“One has to be a very complete artist to create good work among the purest and most balanced landscapes on this planet, and especially when one knows that their only conceivable human match was met in a time beyond re-entry. The Greece of the islands is Circe still; no place for the artist-voyager to linger long, if he cares for his soul… I had escaped Circe, but the withdrawal symptoms were severe. I had not then realized that loss is essential for the novelist, immensely fertile for his books, however painful to his private being.”

The above words certainly ring true for myself after my long sojourn in the light, and colour and heat of the Mediterranean world. It has also been so after visits to Tunisia where Roman cities lie in wait in the most out-of-the-way corners, and in Britain, where I also dwelt for a spell, and in whose green landscape so many tales of Arthur were born and embellished upon.

One thing I discovered is that one can take things for granted in even the most beautiful spot in the world and so when it comes to place loss definitely is essential for the novelist.

And so, now that I am back in industrial and extremely flat southern Ontario I am seeking to remedy my case of "Aegean Blues". My heart is aching but my pages are all full.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Word on the Street

Yesterday I attended an event held in Toronto called Word on the Street which involved author readings, signings, musical performances etc. etc. This literary festival is a nice addition to the fall season. As a first-time author I headed out with my writer's bag, containing all the usual acoutrement of a hopeful tale spinner, to see what publishers were present and see a couple of talks. The publishers were just there to sell books and besides, most publishers won't deal directly with writers anymore, only agents.

I did attend one talk by a very helpful agent and a panel discussion by three fiction writers all of whom write what is called (and not in an entirely positive sense) Genre Fiction. Now, as a genre fiction writer myself, I was curious to hear what they had to say about the perceptions of genre writing today and how genre writing stands up to say, literary fiction. All three of these writers (paranormal, sci-fi, and crime/thriller) are bestsellers at home and abroad, including the New York Times list.

When asked if they thought that there was a prejudice against genre fiction the answer was yes, but that it is changing. In fact, many literary writers are dabbling in genre writing even though they might not intend it that way. These writers also said that they were not worried about genre fiction being looked down upon because, at the end of the day, they write what they love and want to write and do rather well at it. All of them were doubted by their agents or publishers at the beginning but luckily folks on the business end of things took a chance on each and it paid off for all of them.

As one audience member stated, it shouldn't be about this or that genre but rather about enjoying a good story and a good read. Heartening words and a great event for writers and readers, young and old. Good on ya, Toronto!


Greetings and welcome to the first blog. As a sort of rookie blogger I don't yet have a grasp of all the tricks and tools that can be used to jazz up this site but soon I hope to have many beautiful photos of some of my favourite ancient and medieval sites along with some virtual tours.

As can be read in my profile, I am a writer and historian and marrying the two things has been one of the most enjoyable and fulfilling things I have done, a never-ending adventure to be sure. Another adventure is trying to get an agent in order to get published in the current economic climate and as many writers will tell you, it is not easy out there. Yet, I remain hopeful and determined. This will be something I shall speak to quite a bit.

I guess with this whole blog thing, folks can send me e-mails or comments so, if you have something you would like me to discuss at some point, let me know and I'll say a few words for what they're worth.
Just for fun
I'll try to post a new picture each time I write. Can anyone guess where this one is from? No prizes, just a virtual laurel wreath on your brow!