“If it doesn’t matter, it doesn’t count.” Why corpses can’t just be a McGuffin.


This is something we say in this household, sometimes through gritted teeth, when a scriptwriter has hit us hard by killing off a favourite character in a TV show or film. The same applies to my reading, certainly these days. I have long since moved on from the fun, formulaic mysteries where the body in the library or wherever might just as well be a realistic dummy, because their role is simply to get the plot rolling. A McGuffin, as Alfred Hitchcock explained, and frequently demonstrated in his work. Rear Window is a fantastic film, but does anyone ever remember the dead woman’s first name, or why she was killed?

For crime fiction to have emotional depth, readers (and viewers) need to make a connection with the victim. This death has to matter. On the other hand, the crime is generally what starts the story. So making that connection can be a challenge when our first encounter with someone is with their corpse. It’s getting to know who this person was, and why someone else would be driven to kill them, that draws us on through the book, in most cases. There are exceptions of course, but it takes an accomplished writer to do this well. Even so, that won’t be what a lot of readers are looking for.

So how do we make Mr or Ms McGuffin matter, if the reader will never get to meet them? The most satisfying way for me as a reader is to see the dead person reflected in the reactions of other characters in the story. The more complex and varied those reactions are, the more interested I become. Someone blameless and beloved by all, who’s murdered by an unrepentant monster, is certainly a tragedy, but that can make for an ultimately one-note, and depressing, novel. Reading about an unrepentant monster who finally gets what’s long been coming to them is most likely to leave me thinking ‘good riddance’, closing the book, and moving briskly on.

Thankfully there are infinite possibilities between the two extremes. We can see one person who knew the victim is genuinely grief-stricken, while the next is really struggling not to speak ill of the dead. Or maybe they’ll have no hesitation at all, venting some fresh or festering grievance. What does any or all of this tell us about the victim, and why they were killed? Or maybe this particular quarrel has no significance? The opportunities for false leads and red herrings are endless.

But there still has to be an emotional connection in all this, not just plot mechanics. We have to see that this person mattered, that they had value or significance, at least to someone. No man or woman should be an island, any more than they should be a McGuffin. Their death should diminish someone. As readers we need to see this, if we’re really going to feel it. We won’t make that connection if we’re simply told about the victim’s virtues and/or vices.

This is why Xandyberis had to be more than an unexpected dead man in expensive shoes, when I came to write Shadows of Athens. I had to think through all aspects of his character and his life, as well as working through the events and motivations that ultimately led him to meet his demise. Philocles discovers some, but but no means all, of this through the course of the book. That he doesn’t learn everything doesn’t matter. I still had to do the work that didn’t end up on the page, to make sure that this story would count.

And yes, some recent notable deaths in recent film and TV got me thinking about this, but No Spoilers.

“The thugs vandalised the wall with vile grafitti” – words you won’t find in Shadows of Athens

As those who’ve already read the book know, this line could have been in the book. It’s stuck in my mind because that was a point where my typing completely crashed to a halt over the question of vocabulary. It’s something that definitely challenges historical fiction authors.

Where do you draw the line between ‘realism’ and clarity for readers? Because on the one hand, complete realism for readers would mean me writing Philocles’ adventures in Attic Greek, writers like Simon Turvey brushing up their Latin, and James Wilde reaching for his copy of Sweet’s Anglo-Saxon Primer. That would be ridiculous.

On the other hand, the wrong word can throw a reader out of a story completely. That’s happened to me more than once. The last time was thanks to a Roman legionary using a Napleonic era military term. No, I can’t remember the book, and wouldn’t cite it if I could.

The fact that English is full of so many loan words complicates things still further. Just look at that sentence above. ‘Thug’ comes from the era of British rule in India, ‘vandals’ harks back to the rampaging Germanic tribes in the so-called Dark Ages, while ‘graffiti’ comes from Italian and wasn’t used before the 1850s. All of which are so far removed from Classical Athens, that the sentence above would surely have been a real stumbling block for the reader.

Though I wonder if it would be the use of all three words so close together that would make the real difference? Would the reader’s eye slide over ‘thug’ or ‘vandal’ if those were the only potentially out-of-place/period words in a sentence? Perhaps, and also, any reader response is going to be a very individual thing. One reason why I wouldn’t cite that time-travelling Roman legionary, even if I could, is because, let’s face it, you have to be a major military history nerd to pick up on something like that. The majority of readers wouldn’t have a problem with it at all. Indeed, that probably added atmosphere to the book for a lot of them.

Add to that, I know full well that I’ve seen ‘graffiti’ used in books set in Ancient Rome, and my Pedant Sense barely buzzes. It’s an Italian word with Latin roots, and as a consequence, that doesn’t seem nearly so far out of place in that setting for me.

Then there are the times when using wholly accurate vocabulary can give an entirely misleading impression of a historical period and place. I remember seeing an interview with the scriptwriters for the TV series Deadwood, set in the Wild West, i.e. America from the mid 1860s to 1900 roughly. The writers were being criticized for the frequent use of ‘cocksucker’ in their dialogue. They pointed out that contemporary newspapers and other records invariably mention the unmitigated and incesssantly foul language of these frontier territory towns. Men and women alike couldn’t get through a sentence without a ‘bloody’ or a ‘damn’… Er, that would seem positively quaint today, wouldn’t it? It would certainly fail to convey anything like an accurate sense of the era and setting.

So as with so much in language, context is everything. Writers certainly have to be aware of potential unhelpful associations with particular words, but an excess of pedantry/accuracy can be a waste of everyone’s time, and sometimes actively counterproductive. I will continue to examine my own word choices to strike the best balance – and to discuss borderline cases with my editors to see if I need to put my Inner Nitpicker firmly back in its box. Fresh eyes are always invaluable for things like that.

And yes, I am very much looking forward to the upcoming Deadwood movie on Netflix. Seeing that advertised got me thinking about the use of historical language, hence this piece.

Romans, rabbits, and the shifting sands of historical accuracy.

The recent news about rabbits being a Roman import to the British Isles naturally caught my eye, though not for the reasons you might think. I was particularly interested in the range of comments between ‘but everyone already knew that’ and ‘hang on, I thought it was the Normans’. In so many cases, people were citing ‘what I learned at school…’.

I must have been on the cusp of this change in thinking, because I distinctly recall the Romans getting the credit when I was at primary school, only to be told it was the Normans when we did 1066 and all that at secondary school. In both cases, teachers I liked and respected were telling me completely different things. Hang on… So I asked my secondary school teacher to clarify who was right, who was wrong, and why. This has all stuck in my mind because it was one of those conversations that first showed me new and fascinating facets of history.

As my teacher explained, it wasn’t a case of right or wrong, but of evidence and interpretation. The Romans might well have brought rabbits over, but it was very hard to say if they became established in the wild. If they did, these small populations may well have died out well before William the Conqueror and his pals arrived. What we do have solid evidence for is the Normans establishing rabbit warrens and the little furry pests getting loose, presumably to the delight of medieval British foxes. So on balance, at the time, certainly as far as Second Form history lessons were concerned, the Normans got the credit. It’s only when you dig deeper, that you realise the foundation for that ‘fact’ isn’t as solid as it might seem.

What has this to do with writing historical fiction? Well, a writer must always bear in mind how many readers will come to a story with ‘what I learned at school’ as their yardstick for assessing how believable the historical setting might be. Depending on how long ago that was, that yardstick might be as technically outdated as feet and inches in a metric world. But a lot of people still use feet and inches. A couple of people here and there have remarked that the portrayal of the city and society in Shadows of Athens is quite markedly at odds with what they learned at school.

They’re not wrong – this view of 5th century BCE Greece isn’t what I learned at school either. I first had to rethink my ideas when I reached university, where I learned how much more evidence and interpretation was out there to be found. Over the past couple of years, since I first embarked on this project, I’ve had to rethink a whole load of ‘facts’ a second time. There’s a wealth of new evidence that’s been uncovered – literally – and these days historians and archaeologists work far more closely together than they did thirty years ago. In my undergraduate days, the classical texts came first and last, and anything chaps with trowels in trenches turned up was a secondary curiosity at best.

Attitudes to those classical texts has changed as well, which is to say, classical scholars are revisiting and interrogating who is telling us what and when about Ancient Athens. Let’s consider the social status of the likes of Thucydides and Xenophon, and discuss how that is likely to colour their world view. Are they really a reliable guide to working class women’s lives? Then there are academics taking a long hard look at what we’ve been told about those classical texts, when and by whom. The final two chapters of Professor Vincent Azoulay’s biography of Pericles make for fascinating reading, as he traces the evolution of the Golden Age of Pericles notion from the Enlightenment to the present day. So I need to write my books also bearing in mind those readers who will be familiar with these things that I’ve just encountered – and far, far more besides.

I need to strike a balance between these very different sorts of readers. At one end of the spectrum, there are those who learned about The Golden Age of Pericles decades ago at school, and those ‘facts’ about Classical Athens remain firmly fixed in their minds. At the other end are the readers who know far more about these things than I can ever hope to. Then there are all the many, many readers in between – as well as those who know nothing much at all about Ancient Greece and like finding out about something new.

I have two things to help me strike the right note to satisfy most of the people most of the time. Firstly, I’m writing fiction not a textbook. Historical detail in a novel underpins the sense of place and the plot. A light touch works best. I can pick and choose the evidence and interpretations that suit my purposes without dragging anyone too far out of their comfort zone – while satisfying the more knowledgable that yes, I have definitely done my reading. When it comes to the people in my story, I can rest assured that human nature then and now remains much the same. The tragedies and comedies that we have from this period show that is so time after time.

Secondly, I am the lucky beneficiary of the excellent TV documentaries we’ve seen in recent years, thanks to accomplished scholars and communicators like Mary Beard, Michael Woods, and Bettany Hughes. I’ve noticed so often how these programmes reference ‘what everybody knows’ about some aspect of the ancient world without rubbishing these ideas as outdated, but integrating those starting points with more recent discoveries and perspectives, to encourage a new outlook in their viewers.

I hope I can do something along the same lines with Philocles’ adventures, while always entertaining readers, whatever their starting point may be.

Historical faces, facts and fiction


There’s a crucial, initial choice that an author must make about writing a book set in the past. Are they going to write about real people, or are they going to write about a real time and place using fictional characters. It’s a very personal choice, and here are some of the considerations that led me to invent Philocles, Zosime and the rest of my dramatis personae.

Writing about real people offers up a story as a hostage to fortune – or archaeology or archivists. New facts, however unexpected, can emerge to wreck a narrative. I’ve been reading books intent on rehabilitating Richard III ever since I encountered Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time in my teens. Whoever these different books have blamed for murdering the Princes in the Tower (my vote is for the Duke of Buckingham) they have agreed on one thing. Richard’s supposed deformity is hostile Tudor propaganda. That makes for awkward reading after digging up a Leicester car park revealed a skeleton with an emphatically S-shaped spine. True, the best assessments reckon the visible and physical effects of this were later highly exaggerated, but the fact remains that Richard very definitely and noticeably had scoliosis.

Real lives, however dramatic, rarely if ever shape themselves into truly satisfying plots. We see this time and again. Two recent historical films offer examples of recurrent problems. The latest Mary Queen of Scots movie insists (not for the first time) on having Mary meet Queen Elizabeth I. This never happened, as the historical record makes emphatically clear. The implications of that choice to ignore those facts go beyond that scene. If the film makers are willing to invent stuff for dramatic effect, how far can any of the rest of the film be trusted?

On the other hand, sticking closely to the facts can cause the film maker just as many problems. The Favourite, the new film about Queen Anne, is being praised for superb performances, visuals, and the like, but I’ve come across more than a few viewers dissatisfied with the way the story ends. No spoilers, but when a screenwriter is constrained by unhelpful facts, there’s only so much they can do.

So far, these are relatively straight-forward issues. There are much more hazardous minefields for the historical novelist. The Cape Doctor by EJ Levy is a forthcoming novel already at the centre of heated debate. James Barry, the doctor of the title, was discovered at his death to have been born biologically female (or possibly intersex). Consequently, his life has been intensively studied, especially as better understanding of the complexities of human sexuality and gender expression has developed in recent decades – not least thanks to study of the ancient world. Such studies have also prompted considerable pushback from those unable or unwilling to accept sexual and gender identities outside their personal experience, or their religious or philosophical conventions.

In the case of James Barry, this means sharply divided opinions, and the aforementioned heated debate, between those insisting that dressing as a man was the route this young woman took to achieve a meaningful career, and those who point to Barry’s writings and deathbed wishes as firm evidence that he saw himself as a man and wished to be remembered as one. I have no more idea than anyone else what story Levy wishes to tell, or the issues she wishes to explore, but in choosing to write about this particular historical figure she has guaranteed controversy, and to cause offence. These arguments seem highly likely to obscure whatever the merits of the book might prove to be. By contrast, other novelists have prompted far more constructive debate about revisiting historical views of sexuality and gender by centering their stories on fictional people.

So weighing up all these considerations, I have opted for writing stories about invented characters, who get caught up in satisfactorily dramatic events, in a time and place that’s as rigorously accurate and factual a setting as my research can make it. Every historical writer must find their own balance point between fact and fiction, and this is mine.