I’ve had the pleasure of being a guest twice this week – first on a virtual trip across to Alison Morton’s blog, where I was sharing a few mental meanderings about historical truth and donkey poo. Alison is the author of the Roma Nova series, set in a world where the Roman Empire hasn’t fallen – so ‘historical truth’ is an interesting issue.
Then, while practially every other writer of historical fiction in the entire universe was at Harrogate (again, Alison’s blog will give you the low-down) I had the privilege of joining a group of visitors from the US on a visit to Hadrian’s Wall. Just as we were turning to leave Sewingshields (near Vindolanda) the sun came out, the rain began, and magic happened.
Thanks to Judi Moore, multi-talented author of “Is death really necessary?” for inviting me to join the blog tour that hunts out the answers to four questions. Mercifully, “Is death really necessary?” isn’t one of them.
Judi’s answers can be found here. Mine are below. I’m charged with handing on the baton, and have contacted a couple of writer friends, but the rules say you can offer up to three links – so if anyone fancies joining in, let me know.
1. What am I working on?
The seventh Ruso novel, provisionally called HABEAS CORPUS, and set in Rome. Thus my head will be in entirely the wrong place when the sixth, TABULA RASA, comes out later this year – that one’s set on the northern border of Britannia and will look very much like the cover on the right. (I believe that’s Hercules clutching the golden apples of the Hesperides. Someone please correct me if I’m wrong!)
2. How does my work differ from others of its genre?
Its genre is “Roman Crime” and there’s a surprising amount of it about. I’d normally reply that I’m more interested than most in the Romano/British tensions, having a leading character from each side and setting the books out in the far reaches of the Western Empire. Although of course Jane Finnis and Rosemary Rowe both set their crime novels in Roman Britain.
Setting HABEAS CORPUS in Rome is going to be a bit of a step in the dark, both for me and for Ruso and Tilla, who will have to be careful not to trip over the descendants of other fictional characters.
3. Why do I write what I do?
Out of fascination with the era – so much ‘like us’ and yet so different. Also, the problem of how to get along with people who don’t share our culture is universal, and it’s especially acute during a military occupation. In a sense it’s easy for the people at the extremes. Their thinking isn’t challenged. It’s the people who rub shoulders every day with individuals from the ‘other side’ who have to make crucial decisions on how to behave, what risks to take and how much trust to offer. Peacemakers may be ‘blessed’ but they don’t have easy lives.
4. How does your writing process work?
I know several writers who sit down at the desk and produce between 1000 and 5000 words a day. Clearly their brains work much faster than mine, and they have much better self-discipline.
Often the only way to make progress is to spend a lot of time getting it frustratingly wrong, then to go for a lone walk only to realise (on a good day) what I should have written. Thus many hours are spent producing words that end up in the ‘dump’ file the next morning. I keep a running total of the word count on a virtual sticky note on the desktop, just to reassure myself that I am making progress, if rather inefficiently.
What about planning, you may be asking? Oh, I can show you plans. Official synopses. Splendid creations in multi-coloured felt-tip. Photographs on whiteboards. Photographs of whiteboards. Maps with pins and stickers. Spreadsheets. Character lists. Charts drawn up using special software. Then you can wonder, as I do when these things resurface during a clear-up, what on earth most of them have to do with what’s in the book.
‘Tis now the season, so in search of something appropriate to share, I turned to Macrobius’s “Saturnalia. ” This is not as jolly as the name might suggest, being largely a discussion on Roman culture, but there is a section of “witticisms”. Below is the best I could find. Please don’t build your hopes up.
Caninius Rebilius was consul (supposedly a year-long post) for a single day. “We have a watchful consult in Caninius,” observed Cicero. “He didn’t see a moment’s sleep during his term.”
Augustus, on noting that one Vettius had ploughed under his father’s memorial stone: “Now that’s what I call cultivating your father’s memory.” (Unusually, this is a pun that works in translation)
By way of excuse, I should point out that Husband owns a book called “Freud on Jokes” and that is not funny either.
You may be relieved to know that Mary Beard is currently working on a book about Roman humour. It doesn’t seem to be out yet but it promises to be a lot more entertaining than Macrobius. There’s a taster here.
(Quotes are based on Robert Kaster's translation for the Loeb edition of Macrobius: tweaks and errors are mine.)
A friend recently sent me this link to news of MASTERPIECE, a “reality show for writers” soon to be broadcast on Italian television. I read the article with mounting amazement, wondering, who on earth would go in for something like that? And then I remembered.
It started with a conversation over the wine and peanuts one evening at a friend’s dining-table, when someone said, “Is anybody going in for this BBC thing?”
“This BBC thing” turned out be a competition called END OF STORY. Half a dozen famous writers had each written half a short story and the public were invited to submit their own endings. Someone did note that the small print obliged entrants to take part in a TV programme, but there was no need to worry: it was a national competition so the chances of that happening to any of us were infinitesimally small. Several of us agreed that finishing someone’s story seemed like a fun thing to do, and then we moved on to the business of the evening: the struggle to write something fit to be read aloud in response to whatever writing exercises this month’s leader had brought.
I had completely forgotten about END OF STORY when the phone call came. I was on the long-list for the Fay Weldon group! I had won a mug, a t-shirt and, better still, lots of kudos! The excitement of this news was slightly tempered by the memory of the small print, but I pushed it to the back of my mind. TV appearances were like accidents. They only ever happened to other people.
Until the next phone call.
Day later I was in Glasgow, one of a row of shell-shocked wannabe writers seated on chairs under studio lights. Cameras were poised to catch close-ups of our reactions as the panel of judges delivered their verdicts on a screen in front of us. Professional writers, we were told, must expect to have their work critiqued. They were treating us like professionals. It was too late to point out that I didn’t really want to be a writer after all: that despite the encouragement of a very patient agent, my attempt at a novel set in Roman Britain was headed for the bonfire. That I’d decided it was time to stop wasting time with words and find something useful to do with my life.
I’m told I looked very calm, but that may have been something to do with the painkillers. It certainly wasn’t the Buck’s Fizz on offer in the dressing-room. I’m still not sure whether that was a sign of the BBC’s generosity or its need to get us to relax in front of the cameras. Either way, I’d turned it down. I had enough trouble walking in a straight line as it was: earlier that week I’d managed to fall off my own shoes and crack a bone in my foot, and had to lurch into the studio on crutches. Maybe that’s why I didn’t run away.
After it was over they took each of us into a side room and asked, “How do you feel?” Since then I have watched hundreds of people being asked this question in front of cameras and to my amazement they all seem to know the answer. Whatever I managed to stammer evidently wasn’t interesting enough to broadcast. What I should have said was, Stunned. We contestants had begun to feel that we were all in this together, but now three of us had been eliminated. I wasn’t one of them.
Somebody’s bum looks big in this, but for once it’s not mine. Made it down the stairs on one crutch!
Two of the objections to the idea of a ‘live’ writing contest are that writing is neither easy to do with an audience, nor very interesting to watch. Mercifully the BBC had thought of that, so the putting together of words was firmly in the past by the time we got anywhere near the cameras. However, being a professional writer involves all sorts of things that are nothing to do with writing. In the interests of entertainment and education, the producers came up with new challenges for us.
By some twist of fate the one who hated having photographs taken was sent for a professional photo shoot. The one who was in the slough of despond because not only was her novel headed for the bonfire but she’d just failed an interview for her own job was to be given… an interview! I don’t think they filmed the moment when the production crew thought I’d done a bunk down the back stairs on my crutches, but it would have made good telly.
Finally we got to meet Fay Weldon, whose story we’d all attempted to complete, and who was both kind and generous with her critiques. And then it was all over. I was alone on the way to Euston with a fresh challenge: how to manage an overnight bag, a bunch of flowers, a bottle of champagne and a crutch.
It’s all over. Still hoping they don’t film my feet. Only wearing those sandals because nothing else will fit round the bandage. (Yes, that is Big Ben outside. The finals were filmed in London.)
Six END OF STORY programmes went out on BBC3 back in 2004. As I understand it, the twin aims were to encourage writers and to entertain viewers.
Did they succeed?
They certainly encouraged me. Shortly after it was all over they rang to say they were thinking of making a follow-up programme about the finalists. Could they send a camera crew round to ask about the writing?
Now the writing, as you’ll be aware if you’ve been paying attention, was on the road to destruction. (Destroying stalled novels was so much more fun in the days when we had paper. I had enough failed drafts in the bottom drawer to make a merry blaze.) But of course I still couldn’t say that to the lovely people at the BBC. They had pushed me through the streets of Glasgow in a wheelchair when the crutches got too much, and been enormously kind about my terror of interviews. So when two chaps turned up with a camera I burbled vaguely about working on a Roman novel. “Great!” they said. “We’ll be back in January to see how it’s going!”
I did my best to keep smiling.
Did they entertain the viewers? Maybe not as much as they’d hoped. It wasn’t until January had slipped into February, February into March that I began to look up from the frantic efforts to produce something – anything – to talk about next time, and to wonder if they were coming back at all. By the time I realised there would be no follow-up programme, the first draft of the Roman novel was almost complete.
That book later became the first in the Ruso series. The sixth should be published next year. The one contestant with whom I’ve kept in touch is also still writing.
My best wishes go to all the brave contenders on MASTERPIECE. I have much to be grateful for, and I hope it works for them as well as the BBC’s rather more restrained approach worked for me.
As for that foot injury – not even the humiliation of falling off my own shoes was wasted. Ruso suffers a broken metatarsal in rather more heroic circumstances at the start of the third novel. Believe me, those scenes on crutches were written with feeling.
For more thoughts on MASTERPIECE, here’s a debate in the Guardian. Anyone else care to comment?
They say you should put the important information at the top of a piece, just in case nobody reads any further, so here it is -
I’ll be at Calne Library in Wiltshire this Tuesday evening with the irrepressible Ben Kane, author of Roman military fiction and owner of a pair of repro Roman boots that walked Hadrian’s Wall last summer and helped to raise thousands of pounds for charity. You won’t have to donate to come in – just pay £3 for a ticket. Phone 01249 813128 to book.
I’ll be in Bristol Library at 7 pm Wednesday with Robert Low, Mike Williams and Kylie Fitzpatrick, This is a FREE event but you do need to book – 0117 9037200
These are the last two events for this year. It’s been an enormous pleasure to meet so many readers, writers, bookshop and library staff on my recent travels, and to reconnect with real people beyond the desk and the computer (which is not to insult the family and friends here, but it does sometimes seem as though the entire business of writing is a fantasy world that I just make up to fill in the hours while other people are out there doing proper jobs).
We were in some splendid venues, but my plans to take lots of photos were thwarted by a failure to pack the camera. Here, with apologies, are the best of a bad bunch from the phone.
First – on the right, the leg bones of an elephant. I can’t remember which sort of elephant, but a trip to the excellent Eton College Natural History Museum will tell you. It will tell you many other fascinating things too. On the left, me. The photo was taken by Karen Maitland, author of marvellous medieval thrillers and not at all responsible for the fuzziness around the edges. We were there talking about Ancient and Medieval medicine as part of the Thames Valley History Festival, which runs until 17 November.
Next up – Heffers Classics Festival, held in the university Law Faculty at Cambridge. To say I was nervous beforehand would be an understatement, but it was a fantastic day with loads of good speakers – if they do it again next year, I’d very much recommend it.
And finally – this is the Bamfylde Hall at Hestercombe Gardens, near Taunton – one of the venues for the Taunton Literary Festival, being run by the enterprising folk at Brendon Books until 19 November. Luckily I was early, as the local lanes have to accommodate cows as well as cars, and cows do not move very fast.
After this… I really do plan to get some writing done.
While I’m busy talking, two friends will be sending their new books out into the world this month. Good luck to Rebecca Alexander, whose debut THE SECRETS OF LIFE AND DEATH has just been launched by Del Rey. My copy hasn’t arrived yet but I’ve read some of the early chapters of the book that Rebecca’s working on at the moment, and they’re gripping.
Alison Morton’s PERFIDITAS comes out today – the sequel to INCEPTIO. What would have happened if Rome had never fallen? Well, Latin homework would have been a whole lot easier. And we’d never have heard of Edward Gibbon. But that’s my take on it, not Alison’s. Hers is far more creative. Find out more – including what Simon Scarrow and Sue Cook say about PERFIDITAS – here.
For those of us who sit hunched over a computer all day, a chance to get out and meet real people is very exciting. I’ll be taking part in several events over the next few weeks so if you’re able to join us, please come and say hello.
16 October – 7.00 pm at Barton Library (Barton le Clay, Bedfordshire) “Writing the Romans” with Henry Venmore-Rowland. Henry is the author of “The Last Caesar” and “The Sword and the Throne,” bringing to life the tumultuous events of AD 69 when Rome had four emperors in one year.
17 October – 7.00 pm at Putnoe Library, Bedfordshire – Crime Through Time. I’ll be discussing the appeal of the Romans and the Tudors with Rory Clements, author of the John Shakespeare series (yes, John is the brother of the more famous William, and a great character in his own right).
1 November, 7.00 pm – “Leeches and Prayer – the Medicine of the Past” part of the Thames Valley History Festival. Join me and Karen Maitland, author of the superb “Company of Liars”, at the Natural History Museum in Eton College – a venue where we are promised real leeches.
2 November – Heffers Classics Festival – in association with Cambridge University’s Festival of Ideas. Such an honour to be invited! (When you see the lineup you’ll understand what I mean.) I’ll be talking about “Stories in Stones” – the tales that have slipped down the gaps of history. That will be the (relatively) easy part. I’ve also agreed to speak for Dido in a balloon debate about who was the greatest character in Classical Mythology. I’m still wondering why I said ‘yes’ to this. Unlike everyone else on the panel, I’m neither a classicist nor an Oxbridge graduate. Surely poor Dido has suffered enough? Details and tickets here.
Welcome to my corner of the 2013 Wonder of Rome Blog Hop! There are (I think) seventeen of us linking up this weekend to offer blog posts on some aspect of Rome for your enjoyment. As you’ll have gathered, I’m Ruth Downie, and I write a series of crime novels featuring Roman army medic Ruso, and his British partner Tilla. Predictably, my choice for the Wonder of Rome is its doctors (even if they did learn most of what they knew from the Greeks).
As part of the Hop I’ll be giving a copy of the Ruso book of their choice to one randomly-chosen reader, so if you’d like to enter the draw, please leave a comment below and I’ll be in touch with the winner. (No, this is not a cunning ploy to make you read to the end. I know you have a ‘scroll’ button.)
The Ruso books are set during the reign of the Emperor Hadrian, and I’m mightily glad they are. Not only because it’s an interesting period, but – as I discovered when it was too late to change it – I’ve escaped Galen by a gnat’s whisker.
There’s no doubt that Galen (who was born in about A.D. 129) was a marvellous doctor, as he pointed out himself on many occasions. His influence was such that even in the nineteenth century, German medical students had to pass an exam on his works before they could qualify. But he was prolific. Those of us struggling with deadlines and word counts can only marvel at Galen’s ability to produce vast amounts of prose, and give a quiet sigh of relief at the thought that we aren’t compelled to read it all.
I have, however, been perusing “On Anatomical Procedures” recently. This is how I know that you have to drown your ape. Despatching it in any other way will damage it, thus ruining some of the structures Galen wants you to see as you dissect it.
(It occurs to me now, gentle reader, that you may like to use that scroll button after all. This will get a little gory in places. Crime writers, especially those who write about medics, tend to forget that not everyone is used to this stuff. Sorry.)
The unnecessary drowning of apes is not a cheery topic, and the dissection of living creatures – also recommended by Galen – is even worse. Let’s not even think about… no, let’s not. Yet there’s one practice we accept today that would have been deeply disturbing to the classical Romans. Despite their reputation for cruelty, they would have been shocked at the idea that doctors might routinely learn their trade by taking apart real human bodies. Goodness knows what they would make of CSI or Silent Witness. The medical men of ancient Alexandria had helpfully disposed of criminals this way in the past, but by the time the practice of medicine had spread through Greece and across to Rome, it was much frowned upon. So although Galen managed to examine human skeletons, much of his knowledge of anatomy came from animals.
At least Galen was eager to look, learn, and share his knowledge. Not everyone had such high standards. Rather like the title ‘therapist’ today, anyone in the ancient world could call themselves a ‘medicus’, so it was a case of buyer beware. Martial must have expected his audience to get the joke when he wrote,
Until recently, Diaulus was a doctor. Now he’s an undertaker. He’s still, as an undertaker, doing what he used to do as a doctor. (Epigrams, 1.47)
Just to make the point – Galen was obliged to prove to some of his colleagues that arteries are not empty channels. Neither, he pointed out, are they full of milk.
The medic in the photo was travelling with the XIIII Legion, which was a good sign, since surgeons with the Army or – like Galen – the gladiator schools, at least had plenty of practice. And the best were very good indeed. Anything accessible and mechanical – breaks, sprains, dislocations, cuts, removal of arrowheads from places they shouldn’t be – all these they could cope with. Some of their techniques were still in use in the First World War, and whilst they didn’t have modern anaesthetics, they were well aware of the effects of opium and mandrake.
I thought I should mention that comforting fact before going on to say that they also had a viable method of dealing with cataracts.
Ready? Peep out between your fingers at the sort of precision instrument they would have used –
I’m told the less terrifying end could be dipped into a liquid medicine and used to deliver it to the patient, one drop at a time. (This one was made by Steve Wagstaff.)
And here are a couple of examples of real patients from the Roman world, the first one a Londoner:
The unlucky owner of this bone was buried in Arles -
Dealing with what a doctor could not see or feel was a trickier business. The reason for the spread of disease was much-debated and it’s not hard to conclude that epidemics were kept in check less by medics than by engineers, building aqueducts for fresh water, and sewers the like of which were not seen again in Britain until the great clean-up of Victorian times.
Still, despite everyone’s best efforts, recovery depended on the goodwill of the gods. There are testimonies to overnight cures at the shrine of Aesculapius, and Luke’s gospel tells the story of a woman who had spent all she had on doctors and was finally cured after twelve years of illness by touching Jesus’s cloak.
In fact some people were firmly of the opinion that doctors were best left out of the equation altogether. Pliny the Elder, although he recommended plenty of remedies, was appalled by the notion that anyone should attempt to make money out of the sick. “Only a doctor can kill a man with impunity,” he observed, adding, “there is no greater reason for the decay of morals than medicine.”
Not everyone was so cynical. Doctors were given tax concessions, although perhaps in an early example of cracking down on tax dodgers, Antoninus Pius later set a limit to how many doctors each town could have.
Of course in the absence of a doctor, the educated person could always consult a medical text. Modern readers eager to shun artificial chemicals in favour of natural ingredients might thrill to some of the remedies of Dioscorides of Anarzarbus:
Toothache? Use the sting of a stingray to shatter the tooth
Malaria? Place seven bedbugs inside beans and swallow before the onset of fever
Earache? Boil up the insides of a cockroach and drop them into the offending ear
Bald spots? Burn the hooves of she-goats and smear them on with vinegar (this is one of many remedies, none of them much more appealing)
Thinning hair? Stick on a little extra with a dollop of snail slime
Inflamed injury? Plaster on the fresh dung of grazing cattle.
To be fair, not all of Dioscorides’ suggestions are as alarming as those listed above. Most involve medicinal plants and in places he’s careful to point out that he’s only reporting what other people have told him. But should you consider trying any of them, do remember – this was an era in which anyone could call themselves a doctor.
Thanks for stopping by on your way around the Hop. If you’d like to know more about Roman medicine, look out for Audrey Cruse’s “Roman Medicine” or Ralph Jackson’s “Doctors and Diseases in the Roman Empire”.
Meanwhile there’s much more Wonder of Rome to visit at the links below. All of them should go live sometime today (15 August) – and don’t forget to leave a comment here by the 19th if you want to enter the free book draw!
…and now I’m about to be in one. Ladies and gentlemen, for your entertainment and edification, this coming Thursday a varied group of writers will be presenting a round of blog posts entitled:
Goodness knows what will be on offer as to the best of my knowledge, hardly anyone knows what anyone else has chosen to write about, However, rumour has it that there will be book giveaways. My piece will be posted here on Thursday along with links to all the others, and I’m looking forward to some good reading.
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.
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…