Archive for the ‘Being ‘A Writer’’ Category


Fiction and Fakery

July 22, 2013

I was going to start this post with the Goebbels quote, “The bigger the lie, the more it will be believed.” Unfortunately it turns out that Goebbels probably never said it. According to this site, what he actually said was, “The English follow the principle that when one lies, one should lie big, and stick to it…” Of course he may not have said that either, since I’ve only picked it up from the Internet, but it suits my purposes.

This is all by way of introducing a marvellous article by Charlotte Higgins in Friday’s Guardian. It begins thus (and this IS a genuine quote, copied and pasted):

In 1747, the sensational discovery of an ancient chronicle redrew the map of Roman Britain and gave us place names we still use today. There was only one problem. It was a sham. 

You can enjoy the rest of the article  here.

The antiquarians of the day were taken in, and despite what seem (with retrospect) some obvious blunders, De Situ Britanniae (On the Situation of Britain) was not exposed as a fake until a hundred and twenty years after its  alleged discovery.

Its author, Charles Bertram, drew on ancient sources to make his work convincing, and there’s no doubt that he intended to deceive. Whereas writers of historical fiction are honest folk who draw on ancient sources in order to weave new tales in and around the accepted ‘facts’…er, it’s all sounding rather similar, isn’t it? Except that reader and writer usually agree on the rules of the game. We all accept that much of what’s inside the book is made up. While we ‘believe’ in Marcus and Esca and their attempts to regain The Eagle of the Ninth, we all know they’re simply an invention of Rosemary Sutcliff’s imagination. However… I’ve lost count of the number of people who’ve assured me that the Ninth Legion really did vanish in Scotland: something that now, in the face of evidence discovered long after the book was published, seems highly unlikely.

Sometimes we believe what we want to believe.  And sometimes an invention is useful.  It is, after all, very handy to have a collective noun for the range of hills that stretches up the spine of Britain. And the fact that it sounds remarkably similar to the Appenines, which stretch up the spine of Italy, might suggest a Roman source. Or an inventive mind…


What about a newsletter?

July 10, 2013

Thank you to Charlie, who’s just asked to be added to the newsletter email list if I have one. Up till now there hasn’t been one, largely for reasons of technical incompetence. But a pleasingly short and simple newsletter from a writer friend dropped into the inbox this morning,  and if she can do it, so can I.

Unfortunately my email saying, “Yes! Welcome!” bounced back, which wasn’t a great start. Charlie, if you’re reading this, please could you get in touch via the contact page and we’ll try again?

Meanwhile, I’ll go off and find out whether this kind of thing is within the capabilities of someone with half her brain in the Second Century and a mortal dread of clicking the wrong thing on Facebook.

To be continued…


Prima Donna Downie

July 8, 2013

This weekend I’ve been chatting with the lovely Rob Cain from “Ancient Rome Refocused” via the miracle of Skype. Rob will be podcasting my ramblings at some point  – if he can edit them into something sensible – but in the meantime something he said set me thinking. It was the very simple question:

Where do you write?

The answer to that was once, “The bedroom. When the children have gone to bed and Husband is downstairs watching TV, I turn on the computer, get the corkboard of out from under the bed so I’m sitting beside pictures of Roman sites, and get on with it.”

These days the ‘hobby’ has been promoted to ‘work’ and it gets a whole spare bedroom to itself. For some reason I assumed that as well as providing space for more bookshelves, this would also make me a more productive writer.

We’ve moved house a couple of times recently, and in the previous (temporary) house I wrote in a little room with a big view.  A glance out of the window would allow me to keep an eye on the the traffic and the occasional horse on the main road, and beyond that I could have written daily reports on the roaming of the local cattle, the extensive prowlings of a black cat, and the odd bit of excitement – a fox,  deer, a runaway ball pursued down the hill by the clattering steps of a lad in football studs, or the arrival of another huge caravan to be eased round the tight corner down in the village.  People used to ask, “How do you ever get anything written?” and I began to wonder myself. Were these happy distractions holding me back? Was my subconscious pining to offer me 3000 words a day while my outer self gazed out of the window?

Perhaps not. The new study/office/room is much more professional. Admittedly there’s a wardrobe, because it’s also the spare room, but it also has space for far more books. The perfectly pleasant view – a wall, a hedge, a flowerbed, the car – holds few distractions.

I miss them. In their absence, I have started to notice that I really don’t much like yellow walls.  Or yellow-and-green curtains. Or that black shelving. And surely the plot would resolve itself much more easily if I moved those boxes of papers back to where they were before? Thinking of paper… why hasn’t the postman been? Is it raining out there? Is it going to rain? My feet are cold. Maybe I’ll just go and work on the sofa, where’s it’s warmer.  Maybe I should give up for a while and paint the walls? I’ll be SO much more productive afterwards…

And then, watching Andy Murray power his way to the men’s singles title yesterday at Wimbledon (I had to mention it) I remembered that I am very lucky to have a room at all.  I bet Andy Murray doesn’t decide he can’t train because he’s distracted by the view, or he doesn’t like the curtains, or it’s a bit chilly this morning. I bet he just gets on with it. And so shall I.

Just as soon as I’ve painted the walls.


Murder in the Library

May 6, 2013

Illuminated graphic with shadow of hand clutching dagger on library shelves

I’ve been saving this one for now because it wouldn’t do to post two exhibitions at once, even though we did rush from one to the other on the same day. The British Library isn’t far from the British Museum, so we hurried up there to have a look at their Murder in the Library display, an A-Z of crime fiction which runs until 12 May. Below are some heavily-edited highlights.

S is for Sherlock Holmes.

This manuscript of a Holmes story suggests that Conan Doyle was a much neater and more decisive writer than some of us. To be fair it wasn’t clear whether this was the only draft or a final fair copy, but it does raise the question of whether our patterns of thinking have been changed by working with endlessly-tweakable text on screen.

4 Conan Doyle ms

MS of “The Adventure of the Retired Colourman,” published in 1927

Incidentally, I’ve just finished reading Peter Guttridge’s “The Belgian and the Beekeeper,” where a detective not unlike Hercule Poirot meets Sherlock Holmes, now a retired recluse who keeps bees. The newcomer suggests the Great Detective may have been somewhat naive about Doctor Watson’s intentions – why is Holmes now living in poverty while Watson is wealthy?  Exactly how many wives DID Watson have, and what happened to them? Peter Guttridge exploits some of the inconsistencies in the Holmes stories to joyous effect.

T is for True Crime

These are a couple of early books about the Road Hill House Murder, which continues to fascinate modern readers in  Kate Summerscale’s “The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher.”

Books about the  Road Hill House murder showing a plan of the house

The penny pamphlet on the left is written by “A disciple of Edgar Poe”, who clearly had a keen sense of marketing. I’m considering issuing my next book as “a disciple of J K Rowling.”

G is for the Golden Age

The time where everyone looked like this, or wanted to:

3 Golden Age

J is for jigsaw mysteries

Do the jigsaw, solve the mystery. These aren’t unknown today, or at least they weren’t when a friend bought me something similar in a charity shop.

5 Jigsaw puzzles

N is for Nordic Noir

…which goes back further than some of us realise: Maj Sjöwall and Per Wallöö were publishing their Martin Beck novels in the 1960’s.

8 Nordic Noir

O is for Oxford

…where  M is for Morse, who gets a whole display cabinet to himself. Here are three famous faces. Not shown is Colin Dexter, but I’m told he appears somewhere in every episode, which means I can no longer do the ironing during repeats as I have to see where.

7 Morse

Z is not for Aurelio Zen, but for Zodiac mysteries, but let’s end with this:

1 Intro

The quote from Raymond Chandler sounds much like an essay question. I will add one word. “The detective story is a tragedy with a happy ending.” Discuss.


Radio Silence

April 30, 2013

Sorry it’s been a little quiet around here lately. I’m currently racing to tidy up a manuscript that’s going to the new editor tomorrow.  This basically consists of tweaking things that made sense when I wrote them, and scowling at all the queries flagged up in the margin (to which I still don’t know the answers).

Never mind: there’s still 18 hours for inspiration to strike.



These men are after your money…

March 18, 2013

…and they’re armed.



Having seen what they look like, you’ll be pleased to hear they won’t be dropping by to collect. Instead authors Ben Kane, Anthony Riches and Russell Whitfield will be walking the length of Hadrian’s Wall this April (yes, dressed like that) and they’re on the hunt for sponsors*.

All the money they raise will go to two excellent causes –  Combat Stress and Medecins Sans Frontieres.   If you want to join in without getting the blisters,  here’s where you do it.

*UPDATE, 9 April – offers of sponsorship for the walk are now heading towards £9,000!


Ilfracombe Library

March 11, 2013

Huge thanks to everyone who came to Ilfracombe Library on Thursday to enjoy drinks and nibbles and witness the strange sight of an author draped in pseudo-Roman clothes (well, it was World Book Day, when you are allowed to dress up). Ilfracombe’s library is perched on a hill overlooking a dramatic rocky beach and must have  the best views of any library in the country.

This is not one of them:


Obviously it would have been better to have some shots of the audience (they were there, honestly) but by the time we had the camera sorted out, most of them had escaped.  Many thanks to Colin, without whose batteries there would have been no photographic evidence at all, and to Jonathan, who did the pressing of buttons.

Thanks also to the staff at the Library and everyone who helped to spread the word, including the lovely Paul at The Voice radio in Barnstaple, whose soothing influence hopefully helped me produce something akin to coherent sentences on air.

the Voice logo

Strange how the thought of speaking to invisible listeners is terrifying for someone who’s quite prepared to stand in front of 30 people in fancy dress.


Ruso at the Seaside for World Book Day – 7 March

March 4, 2013

I’ll be deep in the Celtic heartlands to celebrate World Book Day this Thursday, taking Ruso and Tilla  to Ilfracombe Library.  Dug the Iron Age Man (not a character, but a facial reconstruction) will be there too. There will be an element of suspense to the proceedings, for me if not for everyone else, as I foolishly said I would dress up in Roman Lady kit and am now wondering whether I will get through the evening without falling over it.

To find out, join us at 6.30 pm. Tickets are £2 and you can get them from the Library.



Publication Day!

January 8, 2013

Cover of SemperFidelisDear friends of Ruso and Tilla in Britain – please excuse the cheesy grin while I celebrate the publication of SEMPER FIDELIS in the US and Canada. The quickest reader off the mark has to be Laurie, whose insomnia led her to discover a pre-ordered copy downloaded to her Kindle in the middle of the night. (She’s the one now dozing quietly in the corner.)

This is traditionally a nervous moment for authors – and not just for modern ones. Here are a few words from a writer anticipating his readers’ reactions some time before 63 B.C. …

“So ends the episode of Nicanor, and as, since then, the city has remained in the possession of the Hebrews, I shall bring my own work to an end here too. If it is well composed and to the point, that is just what I wanted. If it is trashy and mediocre, that is all I could manage. Just as it is injurious to drink wine by itself, or again water, whereas wine mixed with water is pleasant and produces a delightful sense of well-being, so skill in presenting the incidents is what delights the understanding of those who read the story. On that note I will close.” 
(2 Maccabees Ch 15, vs 37-39, The Jerusalem Bible)

My Next Big Thing

December 11, 2012

And now, a change of pace. First, a big thank-you to Caroline Davies,  who tagged me for “My next big thing” longer ago than I care to admit. It’s a set of questions that one writer passes to another, giving each of us a chance to blather (sorry, tell the world) about our own current project.

Caroline is a poet. Now I have to confess that collections of poetry are rarely my thing. They tend to remind me of my efforts at wholemeal pastry – very good for you, but heavy going. Not so with Caroline’s soon-to-be published collection, CONVOY. The clue is in the title – it’s the story of one of the Allied convoys that battled across the Mediterranean to take supplies to Malta during the Second World War. I read a draft a while back and loved it. It’s vivid and exciting and humbling, and all the more impressive for being a true story. So that’s Caroline’s Next Big Thing. Here’s mine -

Cover of US edition of Semper Fidelis

What is the working title of your book?

It’s called SEMPER FIDELIS. Thanks to my astounding ignorance, I had no idea when I chose it that this is the motto of the US Marines. I hope they aren’t going to pay me a visit and complain.

Where did the idea for the book come from?

It’s the fifth in a series featuring a Roman Army medic serving in Britain. We usually see the Roman Army as full of tough highly-trained killers, but every one of them was somebody’s son.  I’m at the age where my friends’ cute little babies are donning uniforms, getting tattoos and being sent to countries where other people want to shoot them. Those of us who wait at home for news trust that their commanding officers will do their best to look after them, and it occurred to me that it must have been the same for Roman families waving their sons goodbye as they went off to join the Legions. But what if some of those officers didn’t have their men’s best interests at heart? Would mistreatment be dealt with, or would it be hushed up?

The series is now at the point in history where Hadrian visited Britain, and my characters are under serious pressure to put on a good show.

What genre does your book fall under?

Historical crime.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

Someone who knows what they’re doing had better do the casting. Meanwhile I’ll be auditioning George Clooney and Daniel Craig over a long lunch.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

Roman legionary medic is under pressure from his comrades to cover up a scandal, and from his wife to expose it.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

It’ll be published by Bloomsbury in the USA and Canada in January 2013. The UK shouldn’t be far behind.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

There are quite a few Roman crime series being published now, but as far as I know, the trend was started by Lindsey Davis and Steven Saylor.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

I’m fascinated by the interplay between the occupier and the occupied in Roman Britain, and the fact that so much evidence still lies buried under our feet. I wanted to write the sort of personal stories that have slipped down the gaps of history.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

Hadrian’s marriage was not made in heaven, and at about the time of the British trip, the Empress Sabina was involved in a mysterious disgrace. Only the flimsiest of details have survived in the records – but of course all is revealed in the book.

Tag time

And now I’m going to tag the Mysterymakers, three writers from the north of England “who love to talk about murder”. First up is a fellow-writer of Roman mysteries who will be familiar to regular readers of the blog – Jane Finnis. Look out for Jane’s Next Big Thing in the next few days, and through her we’ll get to meet the other Mysterymakers. After that – who knows?


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