“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.

The fascination of history’s fluctuations

There’s always something new to learn about the past. This is something that’s sustained my lifelong interest in history. Any view of history as simply a static list of deeds and dates is woefully behind the times.

New technology is constantly bringing new information to light, and I don’t just mean the geophysical surveys and ground penetrating radar that first appeared to work their magic for Time Team. Most recently, a couple of archaeology documentaries I’ve watched have highlighted Swansea University’s isotope analysis of tree rings from timber samples that’s revealing a wealth of historical climate data. That in turn reveals pressures like famine and flood on populations and their rulers, filling out our understanding of political events. Isotope analysis of teeth from skeletal remains has been showing us how far people could travel from where they were born and raised, even as far back as prehistory. DNA analysis is showing that old assumptions about an individual’s gender based on the clothes and things they were buried with, need to be revised. We have evidence of Viking women buried like warriors, as well asScythian men buried in female clothing surrounded by domestic accoutrements. Such evidence calls into question a whole lot of assumptions that have been made about ancient societies’ views on gender.

It’s not just technology that’s offering new insights. Experimental archaeology and living history projects show us all sorts of things. When someone starts to wonder how long it actually takes to get from wool on a sheep’s back to a wearable garment, and decides to find out, a huge amount is revealed. Historians start to appreciate the practical knowledge and considerable skills involved, as well as getting an understanding of the actual time these things took. Increasingly, the idea that women (especially in the ancient world) were kept at home by the stern hand of male authority is being questioned. A wife and mother keeping her household fed, doing everything by hand, and clothed with her own spinning and weaving, wouldn’t have much spare time to go gadding about.

As for their husbands, we’ve seen projects as varied as building a medieval castle at Guedelon, to various attempts over the years to erect replica Stonehenge monoliths with period appropriate equipment. Every time, the challenges encountered show that thinking pre-modern must mean primitive, ignorant or unskilled says more about modern arrogance than it does about people in the past. When it comes to those old theories about great cities in Africa or Asia being built by long-lost pseudo-European tribes, that notion now looks as racist as insisting the great pyramids could only have been created by aliens.

New insights are coming from indirect sources as well. Oil industry exploration in the North Sea provided the original data that’s revealed Doggerland. The hot, dry weather of 2018 across the UK and Ireland offered up lost historic locations revealed by parch marks spotted by drone enthusiasts pursuing their hobby. Even things as seemingly unrelated as DVD box-sets and TV streaming can prompt rethinking. I remember reading scholarly papers as an undergraduate discussing how classical Greek drama and musical competitions might be arranged, very dubious indeed that an audience would sit through five comedies, one after the other, or an entire trilogy of tragedies plus a satyr play. These days, binge-watching and Lord of the Rings (extended version) movie marathons give whole new insights into audience endurance capacities.

I could go on. These are merely a few of the examples that occur to me this morning. So much new information offers endless possibilities for the historical fiction writer. Though of course, this also has challenges for an author. It’s all very well for a 21st century crime writer to know that a skilled individual could travel hundreds, maybe thousands, of miles in the ancient world. If they turn up as the victim in a murder mystery, whoever’s investigating still needs some plausible way to find out that doesn’t rely on modern technology. Even if isotope derives from the Greek: isos topos – same place.

Essays and Novels – Research Then and Now

With a month to go before Shadows of Athens hits the bookshops, a few friends and family have been curious about how long it’s taken for me to decide to write a historical mystery. They know full well that my enthusiasm for crime fiction, as well as for the ancient world, goes back decades.

It’s a good question, and I’ve realised that a lot of the answer has to do with research. I learned how to do serious research when I was writing essays as an undergraduate in the 1980s. We got a question from a tutor, along with a reading list, and headed for the Bodleian Library. We looked up those books and journals in the massive card index, flicking through the thousands of cards painstakingly written by generations of librarians. Making a note of the arcane numbers that would tell us where to find what we needed, we went searching the shelves. If we were lucky, the book was there. If we weren’t, there was a green slip with a note of a reading desk number, where the person reading it was sitting. If they’d already finished with the book, we could have it. If not, we went looking for the next one on our list. We soon grew to dread the weeks when it became obvious a whole lot of tutors had included the same book on different reading lists. I soon grew to seriously dislike those few students who would amass six or eight books at once, and insist they were using all of them simultaneously, rather than going through them one at a time, so everyone could get on with their reading.

All of that meant spending hours in the Bodleian. Don’t get me wrong; I loved it. But even living within reach of Oxford’s libraries, committing that amount of time at evenings and weekends really was a non-starter for years, when I had other work and family responsibilities. Besides, no matter how brilliant your idea for a historical mystery might be, no one’s going to give you a reading list to help you do the right research. And you really do need to do the research. Getting a seemingly insignificant detail wrong can throw a reader out of a book completely, while making a factual error can bring the central premise of a plot crashing down. It doesn’t happen often, thankfully, but I’ve come across too many instances in my own reading to be ready to risk it. So that doubles the research challenge, when you need to work out what you need to know, before you can even go searching for it.

So what changed? New technology arrived! Go into the Bodleian nowadays, and that great card index is long gone. Computer screens invite you to search the online catalogue, though you don’t often see people using them, because Wi-Fi means you can do that direct from your laptop. You can do it from home, before you even head for the library. More than that, you can search for the key words that help pinpoint what you need to read. Descriptions of books and papers generally indicate if they’ve got what you’re looking for, and equally usefully, if not. I’ll have my list of selected shelf references ready before I even set foot in the library these days. If the book’s not on the shelf? Increasingly, that’s no problem either, because there’s also an electronic version that I can access from my laptop or tablet.

That’s not all. Reading papers from learned journals frequently used to mean braving the Bodleian’s wheeled wooden library steps to get unwieldy volumes down from the reading room’s higher shelves. These days, so many publications, institutions and individual academics make their research available online through websites like JSTOR and Academia.edu. Once again, I can search for key words. I can download papers and read them at my own convenience. When I check a bibliography, and spot what looks like a potentially useful book for more detailed reading, I can look that up online as well, and see if it’s got what I need.

All of this has made getting up to date with current scholarship on Classical Athens possible. It would have been far, far more difficult ten, or even five, years ago. I’ve been able to discover all sorts of fascinating things that are just crying out to be used as a motive for murder. Equally important, I’ve been able to double-check the things that it seems we don’t yet know, so I can be confident (fingers crossed) that I’m free to invent something plausible.

Though rest assured, you need not worry that Shadows in Athens is going to feel like some textbook. The generous quotes from advance readers should make that quite clear. That’s because I’m still enjoying fast-paced, inventive and absorbing crime novels, ancient and modern, from a wide range of writers. That’s equally vital reading, because those books constantly remind me that it’s the people, the place and the plot that make a good crime novel. That’s what all this research must serve, first and last, and I’m not about to forget it.

Mystery fiction in the ancient world, so much easier to write? Think again…

This hasn’t been said to me (yet), but I’ve heard variations on this opinion from panels and in questions at literary festivals and in interviews. It often crops up when someone writing contemporary crime fiction has discussed the undeniable challenges of incorporating accurate forensic science without getting bogged down in pages of technical detail. It’s tempting to think that life would be so much simpler without fingerprints, DNA and the like.

Whose life? The murderer’s maybe, but not the writer’s. Whatever the investigative tools to hand, the same questions must be answered to solve a crime in any period: means, motive and opportunity. How, why and who? There’s a reason the ‘how’ comes first. As Lord Peter Wimsey says in ‘Busman’s Honeymoon’, when you know how, you know who.

Motive matters, of course it does, and we can thank Cicero for coining the phrase “cui bono?” ‒ who benefits? That hasn’t changed since antiquity and our historical detective can make good progress in narrowing the field of suspects by asking intelligent questions, making connections, and finding out who had good reason to want the victim dead.

The next step is checking for opportunity, by ruling potential killers in or out, by checking who’s got an alibi – more Latin! Though that has its challenges in days of whatever yore, without today’s CCTV and mobile phones, without Golden Age crime fiction’s useful train tickets and telegrams, and everything else in between. There are only so many convenient beggars or passers-by that a history mystery writer can expect to get away with as witnesses, whether they’re proving where the killer was, or if some hapless suspect needs to prove that’s where they weren’t. That’s before we get on to the problems of exactly when the killer or innocent suspect was seen. Sundials may be ancient technology which still works today, but they’re not exactly precise.

But unless a mystery novel’s protagonist can demonstrate how a murder was committed, and that the prime suspect must be the one who did it, all they have got is suspicion. Without fingerprints, who can tell who was the last to hold a knife or a sword? Without modern medicine, who’s to say whether someone died of appendicitis or poison? With no lab to offer chemical analysis of those peculiar smears on the corpse’s clothes, how to locate a crucial crime scene? What’s the history mystery writer to do?

The answer’s the same as it is for the contemporary crime writer. Research. We need to remember that pre-modern doesn’t mean the same as primitive. Start researching ancient medicine, arts, crafts, weapons and transport, and you soon learn that experts in their field had a detailed and sophisticated understanding of a whole lot of things. Things that can be used to pinpoint whodunnit, because the killer needed to know something specific to do whatever it was. Some crucial art or craft may lead to a physical characteristic or occupational injury of the sort we rarely see today, that condemns the guilty man – or woman. The more reading you do, the more possible plots and twists and turns appear.

At this point, the history mystery author faces the same challenge as the diligent contemporary crime writer. How not to bore your readers rigid with all the fascinating stuff you’ve just discovered. The temptation is the same, whether it’s the intricacies of modern mass spectrometry, or the multiple processes involved in tanning animal hides in a pre-industrial world.

Well, I can assure you that, while Philocles’ family business is indeed leather working, the amount of detail about that has been pared down in each successive draft of Shadows of Athens. As for anything else – no spoilers!