Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Picture Postcard #1 - I am leaving

This post I am trying something new. I often enjoy little writing exercises that allow me to do something different, something outside the broader scope of my novels. 

This idea came from a contest I saw in a magazine once in which you had to write something on the back of a postcard related, of course, to the picture on the reverse. 

I'm a very visual person and I love taking photos. So, with the picture postcard idea in mind, I've decided to write whatever comes to mind for some of my photos. 

Some of the time I will write about what the photo makes me feel, other times I will make up a story about what might have happened in a particular place long ago. 

I'm not going to follow any particular format. This is just a bit of an experiment for myself, but one which I am happy to share. I'm just going with the flow.

Let me know what you think, feel. And, if you have your own picture postcard writings you would like to share, indicate the link in the comments box below.

I also like to write to music, so I will share the particular tracks that I used to write at the end of each post.

Cheers and hope you enjoy!

This first one is named I am leaving...

I am leaving.

I shall not see you again.

The memory of your quiet paths, the colour of the world when I was with you, fade the farther I get.

I look back and remember, and feel pain.

No longer will I smell the fresh scent of your gentle heights, nor lie, sun-baked, on your pink and white shore with waves lapping at me, hypnotizing me.

I am leaving and sea foam fizzes away to nothing in my wake.

What has happened to you, my place of dreaming?

The life of your peaks, your valleys, has burned and your myriad shades of blue have gone black.

Age after age I returned, but never again.

In my heart, you will always glimmer as an emerald in the deepest depths of time.

You shall be a beacon of fondest memory to which I will be a reluctant traveller.

You shall be a salve for sadness, a needle for pain.

Will I see you again?

Will I?

Music: The Da Vinci Code soundtrack (Hans Zimmer), track 14, Kyrie for the Magdalene 

Friday, January 25, 2013

Reconciling History and E-Reading

Real Books

What do you prefer? A solid book with a nicely used cover binding beautifully textured paper or a sleek, small and highly portable e-reader that can go with you anywhere and allow you to carry all your to-be-read books in the same place?

When e-readers first came out I thought ‘No way! No character in an e-reader, no enjoyment. I’m sticking with books.’ I couldn’t imagine not turning a page or feeling that comforting bulk in the palm of my hand. I’d stand on the subway cradling massive, thousand-page books in my arms, getting angry whenever someone would lean into me because the car was getting too full.

 But then, last spring I received an Amazon Kindle Touch for my birthday. It was a total game-changer for me, the writer/historian who shunned this bit of new technology.

Over the past several months I have been carrying my Kindle everywhere I can. No more awkward page turns on my morning commute in the subway sardine can. Just a quick TAP and I’m on the next page.

Don’t get me wrong, I haven’t dumped all my books. In fact, I have seven large book cases of dusty tomes I am loath to part with. I am, however, reconsidering my purchases and, when it comes to fiction, opting for e-books for several reasons.

Apart from it being a space-saving option, e-books are far and away better for the environment. It seems to me, and this is my own perception, that environmentalism was going strong in the early nineties but then toward 2000 took a nosedive. Thankfully, there seems to be a resurgence, perhaps due to the urgency of the situation globally but also the availability of new technologies. The message gets out more in the media and, let’s face it, paper seems passé.  

I’m not preaching. In fact, I’m as guilty as the next person when it comes to poor environmental choices, though I do try.

Amazon Kindle Touch
There are many things we can do to improve and every little helps. So, for fiction books that I am likely to read once, I always opt for the electronic version. When I publish my own work, I always make it available electronically on as many devices as possible. The Eagles and Dragons series is available in print as well but it is printed on demand, no extra paper used that is just going to collect dust.

However, I still prefer full-colour reference books in the traditional format because it is easier to look at and see maps. I can only stare at a screen for so long and despite what companies say, reading for a long period of time on a back-lit screen is terrible for your eyes. I don’t like to read on a computer screen.

If you are still not sure about the whole e-reader thing, a lot of public libraries are now lending e-readers. Why not head on down to your local library, check one out and see if you like it before investing the $100 dollars or so in one?

There are so many places that you can get a wide variety of e-books as well, including the major retailers like Amazon, iTunes, Sony, Barnes and Noble, and Kobo. If indie books are your thing, you’ll definitely want to check out Untreed Reads, Smashwords and the numerous other independent, on-line retailers whose lists are growing every day.

If you are still new to the whole world of e-readers but want to learn a bit more about the different models, start by checking out the following article

Before I started reading on my Kindle, I thought that it would just be too weird to be reading historical fiction and fantasy on an e-reader. What about that time-honoured tradition of cracking open a book for the first time, of turning those delicate pages every couple minutes, the smell, the feel, the weight etc. etc.?

You know what? If you are reading a really good story, it doesn’t matter if you are reading it on regular paper or an e-ink screen. Good storytelling will transport you back in time, to another place, and all else about you will simply melt away.

What do you prefer when it comes to reading? Let us know in the Comments box below. 

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Writing Ancient Religion

Olympian Apollo

Why is it that a lot of writers steer clear of ancient religious practices in fiction?

Is it because it is awkward and clashes with their own, modern beliefs? Or perhaps it’s because they don’t feel comfortable writing about something so strange, practices they really know very little about?

There is a lot of good fiction set in the ancient world and I am always trying to find new novels to entertain and transport myself. One thing I’ve noticed is that when it comes to the religious practices of ancient Greeks and Romans, they are often (not always) portrayed as half-hearted, greeted with a good measure of pessimism. It might be a passing nod to a statue of a particular god or goddess, or a comment by the protagonist that he or she was making an offering even though they didn’t think it would do any good.

Now, I’m not full of religious fervour myself; it’s difficult for anyone who has studied history in depth to be so. However, I see the value of it and respect its meaning for people across the ages. Religion is not necessarily at the forefront of our thoughts in modern, western society, but, in the ancient and medieval worlds, faith was often foremost in people’s thoughts.

It is easy, blinded by hindsight, to dismiss ancient beliefs in the gods and goddesses of our ancestors.

As a writer, why would I want to dismiss something that is so important to the period in which my novels take place, something so important to the thoughts and motives of my characters?

Goddess Demeter - Elefsis Museum
People in ancient Greece and Rome (for example) believed in a vast pantheon of gods and goddesses who governed every aspect of life. From the emotions one felt or the lighting of a family hearth fire, to the start of a business venture or a soldier’s march to battle, most people held their gods and goddesses close. Indeed, there was a god or goddess with accompanying rituals for almost everything.

Religion enriches the ancient world in historical fiction and sets it apart from today, transports the reader to a world that is foreign and exotic. And the beauty is that there is so much mystery, so little known, that the writer can spread his or her creative wings.

Of course, it’s always important to do as much research as possible; if the primary texts don’t tell you much then look to the paintings on ceramics, wall frescoes, statues and other carvings. If you can get to the actual sanctuaries of the ancient world, even better, for they are places where even the most sceptical person can feel that there is (or was) indeed something different going on.

With the Eagles and Dragons series, I wanted to do something different by having my main characters in close touch with the gods of their ancestors. Since it is historical fantasy, I can get that much more creative in having Lucius Metellus Anguis interact with his patron god, Apollo. In fact, Apollo, Venus and others have a clear role to play and are characters themselves.

The beautiful thing about the gods of ancient Greece and Rome is that they are almost human, prone to the same emotions, the same prejudices that we are. From a certain point of view, they are more accessible.

The Pythia of Delphi
Despite this however, their worship, be it Apollo, Venus, Magna Mater, Isis, Jupiter, Mithras or any other, is still shrouded in mystery, clouded by the passage of time. Thousands and thousands of ancient Greeks and Roman flocked to Elefsis to take part in the mysteries dedicated to Demeter and Persephone but little is known because devotees were sworn to secrecy. Oaths then were ‘water-tight’ as the saying went. Also, at one point, most of the Roman army worshiped Mithras, the Persian Lord of Light and Truth. Do we know much about Mithraism? Some, but there is still much that is not known and perhaps never will be. I get into Mithraism in IMMORTUI.

In Eagles and Dragons Book II, Killing the Hydra (coming this Spring), some of the characters pay a visit to the Oracle of Apollo at Delphi, which was still revered in the Roman Empire. Today, if you watch a documentary on Delphi, you will hear about how the oracle was used by politicians to deliver fabricated answers to those seeking the god’s advice. It is true that politics and religion in the ancient and medieval worlds were frequent bedfellows but one can not dismiss the power of belief and inspiration. If the Athenians had not received the famous answer from the Delphic Oracle about being saved by Athens’ ‘wooden walls’, then they might not have had such a crushing naval victory over the Persians at Salamis.

Temple of Apollo, Delphi
There is a lot of room for debate on this topic and many, I suspect, will feel strongly for or against the exploration of ancient religion in fiction. If we feel inclined to dismiss ancient beliefs, to have our characters belittle them, to explain them away, we must ask ourselves why.

Do we dismiss ancient beliefs because we think they are silly, quaint, barbaric or false? Or do we stay away from them because we just don’t understand? Taking an interest in them, giving them some space on our blank pages, doesn’t mean we dismiss our own beliefs, it just means that we are open-minded and interested in accurately portraying the world about which we are writing.

For me, my own field of fiction is quite vast and multi-hued. Like the Roman Empire, all gods and goddesses are welcome to be a part of the whole and it is my hope that, being inclusive, my stories will be more interesting, more true to life, more mysterious. 

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Hidden Gems of History

Recreation of a Roman Merchant Ship

I read an article on the BBC website this week about an interesting archaeological find off the coast of Tuscany. In 1974 a Roman shipwreck was discovered which dated to circa 135 B.C.  It was studied on and off during the 80s and 90s but it is only recently that one small find had been researched and analyzed.

Part of the finds on the wreck, which was a trading ship sailing from Greece around the Mediterranean, was a small tin box containing six tablets that researchers have found to be Roman pharmaceuticals.
Scientists have analyzed the compounds in the tablets and come to the conclusion that the medicine must have been used for treating eye infections. You can read the full article HERE.

Pozzino Tablets
credit: Giachi et al., PNAS
It is amazing that the tin container managed to keep these tablets intact despite being at the bottom of the sea for almost two thousand years. What is also interesting to me is that Romans had pharmaceutical pills just as we do today.

Most of the time, in movies or novels, the ancients are shown to be mixing disgustingly smelly brews of various compounds (some quite revolting) which they have to drink down while their faces twist up at the vileness of the mixture. Kind of like my morning drink of organic greens!
Tin Box from Pozzino Wreck

But! Here is an example of tablets in a little, ancient vitamin box. For the novelist, this is a great bit of detail that can be added to a story, especially if you are writing about an ancient doctor or healer, a sleuth investigating a poisoning, or even an addict of some sort. It doesn’t all have to be opium!

Little archaeological finds can be real gems in the rough of history.

There is another discovery that I have been reading about for a while that also shared the fate of being overlooked in a larger shipwreck find at first just because of its size and the mundaneness of its initial appearance, a lump of corroded metal.

Front of Antikythera Mechanism
Athens Archaeological Museum
The Antikythera Mechanism, as it is called, was found by sponge divers off the Greek island of Antikythera (between southern Peloponnese and Crete) over a hundred years ago. It was a part of a shipwreck that was said to have dated to first century B.C. The wreck also contained several statues dating to the 4th century B.C. which were, presumably, being taken back to Rome.

This find, when it was first discovered, had archaeologists stumped. Some thought it could be a sort of astrolabe or clock. In the last fifty years, researchers have made some new discoveries using modern x-ray technology.

Back of Antikythera Mechanism
Athens Archaeological Museum
It seems that the device is dedicated to astronomical phenomena and the cycles of the solar system, its gears and dials making it the first analogue ‘computer’. There is even a dial that tracks the cycle of the ancient Olympiads. Scientists say that nothing this advanced was created for the next thousand years! To read more about the Antikythera Mechanism Reasearch Project click HERE.

Back to the story teller in me. What an amazing tale this device would make! The Antikythera Mechanism has been linked to such names as Posidonius of Rhodes, Hipparchus and even Archimides but no one knows for sure. Whoever created this device was brilliant and ahead of his time and without a doubt, worthy of a story.

Is there any better combination than history and fiction? I think not.
Recreation of the
Antikythera Mechanism