Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Roman Dead Under Foot

Artist Re-Creation of Roman Corinium
Archaeology got the better of me for this short but, in my opinion, exciting post about a recent archaeological discovery on the outskirts of Cirencester or, Roman Corinium in the Cotswolds. Corinium was the second largest town in Roman Britain with a population of between ten and twenty thousand. Modern Cirencester has a population of around eighteen thousand.

Basically, a dig at a former garage in Cirencester has uncovered forty Roman burials and four cremations all of which date from the period between A.D. 70 and A.D. 120. Ok, I’m being a bit of a history geek here but what is exciting about this is that previously, it was thought that inhumation (burial of the corpse) was not really widely performed in Britain until the later Roman period on the island. The concentration of so many burials from what is really the early period of Roman occupation in Britain changes things. Among the grave good discovered were bracelets made of green glass beads, jet beads, shale and copper alloy. A child’s grave on the site contained a ceramic flagon, also from the early period. Archaeologists are being cautious in the dating but seem pretty certain at this point. The artefacts will likely be displayed in the Corinium museum (www.cirencester.co.uk/coriniummuseum).
2nd Century Amphitheatre of Corinium

What is interesting about this from the historical fiction writer’s perspective is that it opens the door a bit more and gives us some leeway around Romano-British burial practices. Burial scenes can be extremely moving and now, if you are writing about the early Roman period in Britain, you can choose more easily between cremation and inhumation. Personally, I find fire a bit more dramatic, with its links to more ancient traditions and the heroic age. But, let’s face it. Times were changing and inhumation was fast becoming a trendier way to see folks into the afterlife or whichever paradise folks aspired to. The Egyptians certainly would have understood.

Mosaic and Hypocaust Remains
Chedworth Roman Villa
I’ve been through Cirencester, which was along the route of the Fosse Way, the main Roman road north. If you happen to be in the area, be sure to check out the Roman amphitheatre in town as well as nearby Chedworth Roman Villa. The latter is a fantastic site which feels rather isolated but was quite a luxurious Roman villa in its day. It has well intact buildings, mosaics and a bath house and the grounds are phenomenal. The remains of Chedworth Roman Villa actually inspired the site of the Metellus villa in my first book, Children of Apollo (to be released early in 2012). If you are interested in seeing a bit of Chedworth, here is the link: www.chedworthromanvilla.com.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Study History!

Manuscript Detail
The other day, during a particularly long car ride, I was talking with my wife about some of her students. She is a tutor and covers a wide range of subjects from basic reading and shapes to advanced math and biology. I don’t know how she does it, jumping from one subject to the other with different students for hours on end. Frankly, I find these cerebral acrobatics mind-blowing.

However, she rarely is called upon to tutor someone in history. Sad, isn’t it? History tends to be one of those subjects relegated to the realm of the less important, forever doomed to be in the shadow of arithmetic, science and English. Why is that? I know that for most of you reading this, I am preaching to the choir.

Imagine my shock when history entered the discussion on her work with one student. Let me clarify, the student was writing an essay for English class on an historical topic. I am an historical fiction writer and therefore, a fan of both history and English. Anyhow, this student’s assignment was to write a monologue for a character (a Jewish barber), whose customer of the moment is a former Nazi officer. I don’t know about you, but as a writer that is a very loaded, conflict-rich scene to write out. I was never assigned anything like that in my grade ten class.

What struck us was that the student had no idea what to write. Not a clue! As soon as I heard this, the ideas started blasting through my mind: huge internal and external conflict, ripe for the picking. What kind of person is the barber? Was the Nazi sorry for what he had done or been part of? What if they just talked about it, like one of those human book things? Should the barber just slit the Nazi’s throat as he shaved him? Would the barber then be a hero or would he degenerate into the sort of person he had just killed if he did indeed kill him? Would the barber cry? Would the barber remain silent and allow the Nazi to walk away ignorant of the fact that he has just been shaved by a Jew? Etc…etc…etc.
Book of Kells Detail

There were so many possibilities with this student’s writing assignment and yet…nothing. Not an inkling. I don’t think that this is entirely the fault of the student who simply follows the curriculum. History classes have never been up to snuff and English class covers a whole other world of things. As a writer, I know how much I owe to my years of studying history and the importance that study plays in my writing and the development of my characters. History is not just about dates and battles and lost civilizations. More importantly, it is about human nature and human conflict.

Whether you are writing historical fiction or not, the study of history, I believe, is key to writing and creating real, in-depth characters that move the reader. Whether in the past or present, the study of history is important in everyday life because it helps us to understand the human conflicts that have resulted from human nature.

It holds true that by learning about the past we are better able to understand the present and see the future. If people paid more attention to history, the world might not be as mad a place as it is, more often than not. Granted, bad history is responsible for much of the conflict going on today; a discussion of looking at and letting go of the past in order to better the future will have to be left for another time.

'Plato's Academy' - Michelangelo
My point here is that history is an invaluable tool for any writer, of any genre, because it sheds light on all aspects of human nature and gives precious insight into the human condition which is, for the most part, what almost all novels are about.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Powys' Porius - A Big Read

Just a quick post today about a new, old book that I’ve just cracked open. I’m talking about John Cowper Powys’ Porius, a novel set during what is commonly referred to as the Arthurian period or ‘Dark Ages’.

For some time I’ve been debating starting this unabridged pack of seven hundred and fifty one small print pages but after reading a couple of sample paragraphs, I find that I have been drawn in by Powys’ language.

The scene is north Wales in the year A.D. 499 and Porius, a Briton descended from Cunneda, is facing attack from invading Saxons and their Pictish and Scots allies. To aid Porius, the ‘Emperor’ Arthur sends his advisor Merlin as well as Nineue and Medrawd. I don’t know what will happen but I am looking forward to this, admittedly long, journey. But, isn’t that the great thing about sweeping historical novels? Getting swept up in events that could shatter the world of the characters about whom one is reading is fantastic. Historically, we know that eventually the Saxons overwhelm the beleaguered Britons who, for however brief a time, hold out against the invaders. However clich├ęd it may be to say it, the journey is what matters, or rather we should say that the journey is the adventure.

With an author such as Powys at the helm of this tale, it promises to be a formidable read in an land that is truly as beautiful as the words he uses to describe it. After the first few pages, one can see that Powys held Wales dear. I’ve been all over Wales and can honestly say it contains some of the most dramatic, romantic landscapes in Britain, from the mountains of Snowdonia, to the Legionary base at Caerleon, to the druid stronghold of Anglesey. If I can dig up and scan some of my photos from past travels, I’ll endeavour to share them here as they are definitely worth a glance.

For now, on into Porius as I lug this massive thing into packed morning subway cars where people have already shot me odd ‘What the hell is he reading?’ looks. That’s ok. I’m in my own world when reading. My only regret is that I don’t have this thing on an e-reader.