How to Win Elections & Other Books on Ancient Rome

collisseumHave you ever wondered where writers of historical fiction get all their background information from? You know, about places, historical figures or events, customs, culture, and cuisine? I’ve always been fascinated by the process of writing, but even more so when it comes to historical fiction. On top of the usual challenges of a plot, character development, and pacing, historical fiction throws up the added hurdle of authenticity. To be credible, the writer has to get the history right and make the backdrop seem believable. So, wouldn’t it be great to be a fly on the wall and see what goes on behind the scenes while the writer is trying to craft all this? Well, it turns out that we can almost do that — the next best thing to being there is to hear how writers do it, in their own words.

Lindsey Davis is the well-known creator of a series of historical detective thrillers set in ancient Rome, featuring Marcus Didius Falco, her wise-cracking, maverick gumshoe. She reveals her secrets to getting the history right, in the form of her very own top 10 list of the seminal resource books on ancient Rome in this excellent little piece in the Guardian newspaper.

Everything you can imagine (from a writer’s perspective) is here –

  • daily life in Rome
  • the topology of the ancient city and its surroundings,
  • ancient professions,
  • doctors and diseases in antiquity,
  • politics, and
  • even shopping!

One of the books on Davis’ top 10 list is a classic by Quintus Tullius Cicero (the younger brother of that Cicero, the famed orator). It’s called How to Win an Election, An Ancient Guide for Modern Politicians. To quote from Davis, “The dirty tricks being played out in today’s headlines have a long pedigree. The original spin king may be Cicero’s younger brother, a ruthlessly effective campaign agent. Junior’s electioneering makes ours look tame. Wheel out your family even if they are dying, ruthlessly call in favors for votes, buy more with promises you never intend to keep, canvass people you despise, insult your rivals’ honesty, slander their immoral habits – then clinch it by exposing them as murderers. We have so much to learn!”

And Lindsey Davis should know — she has explored the seamy side of ancient Rome, warts and all, in books like The Silver Pigs and The Iron Hand of Mars (which we talked about in our podcast on the narrative voice).

So, everything you need to write that next Roman whodunit is here — all you have to do is start. And if you have trouble getting started, here’s some excellent advice on that subject, too!

City as Character: La Serenissima


Photo credit: johngregory via Compfight

There are books and movies in which the place – the setting of the events – is as much a character in the plot as the main players. Think of London, in the Sherlock Holmes stories, or New York in Woody Allen movies. But there are also many other examples, where the atmospheric sense of the story would simply dissipate if it were set somewhere else – Barcelona in Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s Shadow of the Wind, Savannah, Georgia in John Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, or Los Angeles in Walter Mosley’s Devil in a Blue Dress (or really any one of his books featuring Easy Rawlins). You get the idea – location can be a crucial element of a story well told. I was thinking about this the other day, and it struck me that it would be an interesting exercise to look at places in the world that are compelling or unforgettable in ways that would make them a prime candidate for being a character in a novel.  This is completely subjective, of course (that’s what makes it fun, right?), but the first name that popped into my head when I came up with this idea was Venice. What other city can one think of that almost invites mystery and intrigue into it, as though to say, this is the offspring that I am destined to nurture in my womb?

Think about it – this is a city that sits atop over one hundred islands on a marshy lagoon in the Adriatic, has no cars or roadways, and yet has a rich cultural, political and artistic heritage stretching back over more than a millennium. It’s barely a quarter the size of London but has over 400 bridges. The main means of transport is by boat, yet it has a maze of streets, including one of the tiniest in the world, a mere 53 cm wide. Houses are numbered by district, not according to the street, which makes it so confusing that even the mail workers can’t figure it out.  This is the city of carnivals, masked people, and acqua alta (the high tide that floods the famed Piazza San Marco). What an ideal setting for murder, mayhem, conspiracy, and subterfuge! And to my immense gratification, Venice does not disappoint, at least in this sense. I did not have to wander long in my trove of mystery and historical fiction to discover a rich vein of material set in this City Most Serene (a clever façade, if ever there was one).

Let’s start with Donna Leon and her series of contemporary police procedurals featuring Commissario Guido Brunetti. These are all set squarely and unapologetically in Venice, a city, which ironically (according to the author) boasts “very little violent crime.” Death at La Fenice, for instance, chronicles the death by cyanide poisoning of world-famous conductor Helmut Wellauer during a performance of La Traviata at the famed opera house, Teatro la Fenice. The New York Times Book Review calls the book a “stunning procedural which lures us away from the glittering Rialto into the working class heart of Venice.” Another review gushes about how Leon has spun a “challenging mystery, a sophisticated drama, and a unique glimpse of a medieval society that still flourishes.” As a complete aside, Donna Leon, for those of you who care for that sort of thing, is on Hillary Clinton’s reading list.

Venice and La Fenice again feature in John Berendt’s City of Falling Angels, which weaves an intriguing tale around the real-life fire that almost completely destroyed the opera house in 1996. In his trademark atmospheric style (very reminiscent of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil), Berendt evokes all the magic, mystery, and decadence of Venice in this story, filled with richly detailed characters and enough plot twists to fill, well, a John Berendt novel. Not unexpectedly, given its medieval and mystical flair, Venice also makes a prominent appearance in one of Dan Brown’s thrillers, Inferno, where it’s home to a particularly significant plot point and the eventual denouement.

And finally, just to tread a little off the beaten path, here’s a work that doesn’t quite fit neatly into any one genre, but is a hidden gem in its own right – Invisible Cities, by Italo Calvino, which is a fictional depiction of the encounter between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan. Calvino is sometimes spoken of in the same hushed tones reserved for the likes of Umberto Eco, so he’s no lightweight when it comes to spinning a yarn with a delicate balance of literary heft and popular appeal. Invisible Cities has all the magical realism, historical detail, and romantic fantasy that a city like Venice deserves. Even Kublai Khan ultimately realizes that every fantastical place that Marco Polo describes in their encounter is some version of the Venice he loves.

And what more can a city ask for, than to become a character in a novel?

Books mentioned in this post

Shadow of the Wind, Carlos Ruiz Zafon

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, John Berendt

Devil in a Blue Dress, Walter Mosley

Death at La Fenice, Donna Leon

City of Falling Angels, John Berendt

Inferno, Dan Brown

Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino

Ancient Hillforts, and Other Welsh Mysteries

Welsh Hillforts

The Welsh have always had an air of mystery about them. Perhaps it is their homeland, with its strange and varied landscapes: from rolling hills shrouded in mist, to craggy promontories hiding all manner of caverns and grottos, to its dark and forbidding moorlands. Or it could be their Gaelic tongue, with its hint of the ancient and the magical, full of unpronounceable words that sound like incantations to the netherworld. Legend and folklore have done their bit to add to this mystique, with stories of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, myths and tales of hauntings, and sightings of strange and bizarre events. The Welsh, by their own admission, live in “one of the most haunted countries in the world,” one that is “overflowing with mystery.”

Small wonder then, that Wales has its share of historical and archeological enigmas, to embellish this general reputation for the peculiar. While other parts of the world have their crop circles and their Stonehenges, Wales has its hillforts — strange man-made Bronze Age constructions that are as inexplicable in their design as in their density. A mere 150 square mile area in northern Wales, for example, has no less than 30 of these formations, whose size and shape continue to baffle present day archeologists. At first blush, they seem to be conventional fortifications, situated on hilltops to provide the advantage of higher ground against the enemy. But their size begs the question of how they would have been defended — and the type of crude weaponry available in those times equally raises the question of why they would have needed much defending in the first place. Perhaps these hillforts were settlements intended to provide clans and tribes with a secure place to live and store grain for parts of the year. Or perhaps their locations (vantage points over the valley) were emblematic of a power structure within those tribes and clans — the occupation of a hillfort being a status symbol in the hierarchy of those groups. Many of these Welsh hillforts are yet to be thoroughly excavated — so perhaps with more archeological activity over the next number of years, we may start to get some answers to these questions.

In the meantime (as we wait for these questions to be answered), it turns out that there is a considerable body of writing to keep us occupied, featuring Welsh mysteries of the fictional kind. Given Wales’ reputation for everything from the merely puzzling to the ghostly to the downright sinister, writers of historical mysteries have not lacked for enthusiasm in setting their thrillers in uniquely Welsh locales. Sharon Kay Penman‘s series on Welsh princes is set here, as are some of the stories in Ellis Peters’ Cadfael chronicles. Mary Stewart‘s series on Merlin and the Arthurian saga is, of course, set in Wales as well. Candace Robb‘s historical sleuth, Owen Archer, is a Welsh spy who plies his trade in medieval York. Sara Woodbury‘s medieval mysteries (featuring her protagonists, Gareth and Gwen) are set in northern Wales. In fact, the first book in the series, The Good Knight, is currently available free on Amazon.

So Wales, in short, has much to offer to those of us who congregate at the crossroads of history, mystery and writing. Given what a difference backdrop and atmosphere can make to mystery fiction, it’s not difficult to see how Welsh locales can add a touch of the creepy and the ominous to the historical page-turners we love to read. Check out some of the recommended readings in this post, and let us know what you think!

C is for Cuspius

Our minds often work in strange ways, flitting from one thought to another, like bees seeking nectar — and then not even dwelling on one long enough to extract anything from it. Or maybe it’s just me. I was just thinking earlier today that it’s about time we did another post on what we are reading these days. That got me reflecting about Mary Beard’s The Fires of Vesuvius, which in turn reminded me of our post on Pompeii, our review of Pompeii: Day of Fire, and our subsequent podcast on a related theme. Somehow or the other, that whole thought process led me to this charming little article on one of the characters in that collection of stories — the Aedile Pansa.

Such are the little delights one finds in wandering the garden paths of history. Or perhaps this is merely an interesting footnote on a real inhabitant of a little Roman settlement that was wiped out in the eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79. I’ll take either interpretation — but more importantly, what do you think?

Pompeian Connections

One Pompeian family that has always intrigued me is the gens Cuspia. Besides generally being prolific in civic and political affairs, the family has been memoralised in one of the grand houses of the city, and more creatively, as one of the characters in Edward Bulwer-Lytton’sThe Last Days of Pompeii. Bulwer-Lytton always identifies him, a close friend of the protagonist Glaucus, as the aedile, often running off to deal with organising the next round of contests in the amphitheatre or sorting out the aerarium which he claims is in disrepair, typically with a large number of clients in tow. Della Corte identified one of the large houses in Region VI as the House of Pansa (VI.6.i), although according to Bulwer-Lytton, Pansa’s taste in decor left something to be desired:

“‘Well, I must own,’ said the aedile Pansa, ‘that your house, though scarcely larger than a case…

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A Sack of Apples – a Depression Era short

FallIt was the fall of 1932. Like most everybody else around me, I was caught in the dust storm of despair that the history books call the Great Depression. Back then, I don’t know if I had a name for it. It was just life, or whatever life had been replaced with by some fearsome power that I couldn’t see.

Anyway, like I said, it was an autumn day, and I was trying to sell apples at the corner of Spruce and 18th near Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia. I had a sack half full of them, all picked off the ground from one of the farms on the northeast side of town. I don’t know what I was hoping to do with my sad sack of apples. Every face that passed me had the same expression, a mixture of defeat and desperation, searching anxiously for something with the certainty of knowing it will not be found. I knew that look – it was the same face that sometimes stared back at me in the cracked mirror they had in the poorhouse on the other side of Market Street.

Then suddenly, in the middle of that line of shuffling souls, a man appeared. It was impossible to miss him. It was a cloudy, overcast autumn day, but he walked down the street like a ray of sunshine, with his fine hat, his pressed suit, and his shiny shoes. Before I knew it, he was standing in front of me, as though I was just the person he had walked down the street to see.

“You selling these?” he asked. “Yes, sir, I sure am,” I replied, anxious to please. “Fine apples, fresh off the farm. You can have a half-dozen of them for a nickel.” He seemed to know exactly what he wanted. Before I could say anything else, he said, “Think you could sell me the whole sack? I’ll give you three dollars for the lot.”

Three dollars. That was more than a whole day’s wages back when there were wages. It was more than I had earned in any day in the months since I had arrived in Philadelphia on a boxcar from Cincinnati. If it wasn’t for his fine clothes and that strange, serene look in his eyes, I might have taken him for one of those joes that rags on you just to make you feel worse than he is. Like a few of the hobos I had sometimes run into on my boxcar journey across the midwest. But this man was no hobo. I handed him the sack without a word. The clink of the three dollar coins he dropped into my outstretched palm was sheer music. Then he was gone.

That night, on the other side of the railway tracks, we had a grand time, me and my little community of fly-by-night buddies. There was Jake, the farmer from western Pennsylvania, who had skipped town to escape the loan payments he could no longer keep up with. And there was Tooth, an old man with thinning yellow-white hair and several missing front teeth, who was always talking about some woman he was with during the World’s Fair in Chicago. The three of us were the regulars, men who had bummed around together at one time or another during our sojourn in Philadelphia, city of brothers. And then there were a couple of professional hobos whose names I did not know, but whose faces looked as familiar as the next fellow.

We passed around a flask of rye whiskey making sure the three of us got our swigs before it went around to the hobos. Our command of the flask was our way of showing how we, the regulars, were superior to them. The burning liquid warmed our chests, the laughs coming out of our throats, but not able to reach our eyes.

Jake started talking, as he often did, about the letter he wrote to Governor Gifford Pinchot, the letter he always carried in his pocket like an old photograph. Written in pencil on yellow ruled paper, its creased pages had been folded and unfolded many times, recounting his hardships on the farm and asking for relief. In the many boozy readings we had heard from Jake, not once did any of us have the courage to ask why he never mailed it. “Did you know,” he asked, one eye glinting with secret knowledge, “that our great Commonwealth has a Director of the Poor?” The question went unanswered. We had heard this many times before too.

One of the hobos then chimed in, talking about some swell in a felt hat who was handing out apples from a sack to the people in the bread line at the poorhouse on Arch. That caught my attention. “What’s the good of that?” the hobo wanted to know. “Why do you think those folks was standing in the bread line? What’s the good of handing out apples to a hungry man?” This started a lively debate among the regulars, who became concerned with the relative value of apples over bread to the hungry on the street. The argument then became quite heated when everyone realized that the last few drops of whiskey were gone.

My curiosity was aroused, but my questions fell on deaf ears. “What did he look like? Was he wearing a pressed brown suit and shiny shoes?” I wanted to know. But no one showed any interest. My eyes drifted to the night sky, its vast space dotted with little fireflies of light. The rye whiskey was snaking its way through my brain as images of a radiant young man in a felt hat and a brown pressed suit and shiny shoes floated past my eyes. As the fireflies starting fading out, I could see him coming towards me like a ray of sunshine, and I could sense a forgotten feeling start to creep back into me, a feeling I hadn’t had for so long that I didn’t know what to do with it.

My last thought as I drifted off to sleep under the stars on that autumn night in 1932, was one tiny little word: hope.

An earlier version of this story appeared on Ramesh’s blog at

The History of Food

history of foodWhen my friend Srikrishna and I started this blog, we were largely motivated by our shared interest in history and crime fiction, and a gravitational attraction to good writing. So the tagline for our blog required almost no thought — anything other than “Exploring history, mystery and writing” would have seemed absurd. In hindsight, I wish I had resisted that urge to commit so early in the game — because it’s clear to me now that I should have held out a little longer, to find some way to sneak “food” into the title. Over time, I found little ways to make up for that momentary lapse of judgment — by weaving in mentions of food into our podcasts, and writing the occasional blog post featuring cuisine from antiquity. But somehow, none of that ever seemed enough — and matters eventually came to a head yesterday when I was listening to one of my favorite podcasts, Stuff You Missed in History Class. Hearing the hosts, Tracy and Holly, talk about the history of pizza, finally sent me over the edge. There is absolutely no way my name is going to be associated with a blog site related to history, without food taking center stage. Not on my watch.

So here we go, with a question I should have asked, well, a long time ago: when did we start making and eating food? No, don’t laugh. It’s a serious question, deserving of more thoughtful answers than “Duh, we killed and ate the animals we hunted.” Fortunately for all of us, this is a subject of deep inquiry — food history is a legitimate field of study in its own right, which examines not only the history of food, but also the cultural, social and economic impacts of food through the ages. Just the sheer number of questions that food history attempts to answer is impressive. When and why did humans start cooking food? How did our ancestors know what to eat and what to avoid? Who came up with the first recipe? What is the origin of some of the foods we take for granted today? When were eating utensils invented? What is the origin of table manners (or lack thereof)?

Fascinating as these questions are, I doubt that many of us (including me, I’m ashamed to say) necessarily want to spend the next few years wading through the many thousands of pages that food historians have compiled. The key here is strike a balance between satisfying our curiosity and not spending so much time on the history that it affects our culinary pursuits in the present. So here’s what I think is a carefully calibrated compromise. I have compiled a set of resources below, for your reading pleasure. Before you start skimming (or clicking) through them, make sure to set yourself a sampling table of your favorite victuals and libations to accompany you on your quest.

And so, without further ado, here’s a top 5 list on a subject that I should have made a non-negotiable part of this blog:

The Food Timeline – an online resource with links to the answers to many of the questions we raised here, along with a timeline of significant food “events” from prehistory to modern times.

Food: A Culinary History from Antiquity to the Present — everything from the evolution of food habits to social and agricultural practices, to religious beliefs and dietary rules, to the origin of pasta and chocolate.

Food: The History of Taste – what is food, if we don’t understand how tastes have evolved from antiquity to the present day? From our earliest proclivities for the sweet and the fatty to our acquired sensibilities for spice, nuance, and subtlety — this well-researched tome has it all.

Hungry History – a delightful collection of vignettes from the History Channel on topics ranging from how the tradition of cookies and milk at Christmas originated, to the history of Tex-Mex cuisine, to the backstory of the humble pickle.

The New York Public Library’s Culinary History Section – no self-respecting listicle on this topic can be complete without this comprehensive resource. The history of everything that is anything to the palate — from baking to condiments to wine-making to gastronomy, with pointers to encyclopedias, reference books, collections and scholarly articles on the subject.

And, lastly, just to show how genuinely interested we are in dragging you kicking and screaming into this subject, here’s a recent article in the Washington Post that explores the relationship between food history, politics, society, and the rise and fall of civilizations — all in the context of the ordinary potato. Consider this our bonus 6th item in the Top 5 list!

One final bit of advice: sample this topic the way you would a well-prepared meal. It’s all about tasting, savoring and appreciating what’s been laid out for you. It’s not about stuffing your face, although you are totally free to do that if that’s what you’re into.

Let us know what you think.


Murder in 500 Words


Photo: Poughkeepsie Day School

“It’s one thing to talk about this in the abstract, Fred, but tell me – have you ever, like, actually killed someone?”

“Other than my tours of duty with the Marines? No. But I kill people with words, every day.”

“Oh, come on, Fred. Killing people off in novels is pure fiction, pardon the pun.”

“No, I’m not talking about my novels. It’s my reporting work, my crime beat. People die every day, and I write about them.”

“But that’s just not the same thing, Fred. For one thing, you had no hand in their deaths, other than writing about it after the fact.”

“Well, the public at large doesn’t know they’re dead until I write about them. These people die in the public mind only when they read what’s in the papers.”

“Really, Fred? You’re going with the ‘If a tree falls in a forest…’ trope?”

“It’s actually more than that. And I’m quite serious. Alright, how about a concrete example? Joe Bloe rats on his Mafia bosses, goes into the Federal Witness Protection Program, and becomes John Doe. And Joe Bloe disappears. Gone, poof! I’d say that classifies as a death.”

“But not in a physical sense! At best, that works as a loss of identity.”

“I think you’re being naïve, if I may say so. Our identities define us. Or have you not read about the Ship of Theseus?”

“I can’t believe I’m listening to this. Ship of Theseus? Tearing down and re-creating an identity doesn’t change physical and biological facts.”

“But it gets to the very heart of what we know, how we know it, and how that knowledge defines reality.”

“I’m a simple guy, Fred. We can debate this in the philosophical realm all you want, but it all falls apart the moment you get down to biology. Death has to involve a lifeless body, you know — a heart that’s stopped ticking. Habeas corpus, and all that. Produce the body!”

“But we accept death everyday, simply on the basis of having read about it. We assume someone, somewhere must have seen the body. In our minds, in the minds of my half-a-million subscribers, these people are dead.”

“Alright, fine. I’ll go along. Where are we going with this?”

“Well, surely you have heard of identity theft by now? My thesis is not unlike the Joe Bloe example. Hack into the system, erase all trace of an identity – and bingo, we have identity death. Then we write about it, and it all becomes quite real.”

“I think you’re getting quite carried away, Fred. You’re banking on anonymity here. Those newspaper deaths you keep talking about – they work because we don’t know any of those people personally. You can erase my identity, but my wife would still know I exist. My kids, my friends, …come on!”

“And I think you’re counting on all of those things a little too much. You clearly haven’t thought about this as much as I have. It’s quite powerful, actually. All I need is a test case, and it will become quite clear that this is not idle speculation.”

“A test case?”

“Yes, exactly. What if I erased your identity, for example?”

“Well, I’ll just call my wife. No, wait, even better. I’ll Face Time her. You can say hello, if you want.”

“On your cell phone? You really haven’t thought through this, have you?”

“OK, fine, I get that. My cell phone wouldn’t work anymore because I’m ‘theoretically’ dead. But, I can call her on the landline. I can drive home and see her in person.”

“I don’t want to burst your bubble, but there are a few minor issues that might prevent you from getting there. The police, for one, will want to know what you’re doing in a vehicle that once belonged to someone else, now deceased. Not to mention how immeasurably crude and insensitive it would be to put your wife, or should I say, your widow, through all that while she is mourning your loss.”

“Fred, I think you’ve been brooding here by yourself a little too much, man. You’ve totally lost your marbles! I think I should leave now.”

“Oh, not at all. I’m quite alright, thank you. And I wouldn’t go anywhere just yet. Especially not without reading this first.”

“What is this? … Oh my god, what sort of sick joke is this? Fred, this is my obituary!”

“Yes, I’m afraid it is. I needed a test case, remember? You’re dead, Jake. Or Dan, or Frank, or whatever your name is in the digital afterlife. It’s quite a nice obituary, actually. One of my better pieces. And quite generous, too. I gave you 500 words.”

Books of April

book_coverI think we can all agree that there is something magical about Spring, with buds beginning to bloom, and fresh greenery for the eyes to feast on. The days are longer too, after the brief blink-and-you-miss-it periods of sunlight during the cold, dark winter months. It’s a time of renewal at home when we clean out the closets and get the dust out of rooms that haven’t breathed the outdoor air for months. It’s also the perfect time to make new lists of books to read – so we can look forward to spending the coming summer months curled up with one, while parked underneath a beach umbrella, or swinging gently in a hammock in the backyard. And that, at least, is something we know we can help you with.

So, without further ado, here are our reading recommendations, culled from our blog posts over the last month or so. Each is a historical mystery, with its own unique setting in time and place:


D.T. Niane, Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali

Rafael Scott, Beyond Mali

The 15th Century

Philippa Gregory, The Other Boleyn Girl

PC Doherty, The Serpent Amongst the Lilies

Margaret Frazer, The Novice’s Tale

Alex Rutherford, Raiders from the North

CC Humphreys, A Place Called Armageddon

The Vikings

Bernard Cornwell, The Last Kingdom

Medieval England

Ellis Peters, An Excellent Mystery

Peter Tremayne, Absolution by Murder

Ancient Greece

Paul Doherty, The House of Death

We hope you find something on this list that catches your fancy. In any case, do let us know what you think, both about the list itself, and the books that are on it.

If Attila Met Augustus

History mashupsLike other parents with young children, I have been through many a parental summer rite of passage in my life. No, I’m not talking about baseball games or vacations to Disneyland — I’m talking about being the designated chaperone for those popcorn-filled orgies that are called children’s movies. Sure, there was the occasional Toy Story or Finding Nemo, but more often than not, I had to sit through the mind-numbing torture of the likes of Nacho Libre, Daddy Day Care, and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. So, when I was commandeered some years ago to take my kids to see Night at the Museum, I feared the worst — my only faint hope was that a movie featuring Ben Stiller had to have some redeeming qualities. And redeem itself it did — because the movie, quite literally, brought history to life.

The central conceit of the movie, as some of you may know, is that a mysterious Egyptian artifact with magical powers causes the exhibits at the American Museum of Natural History to come alive between sundown and daybreak. Imagine a wild party each night, featuring an eclectic guest list that includes Teddy Roosevelt, Attila the Hun, Sacagawea, a Roman general, a Neanderthal, and a cowboy from the Wild West, and you’ve got yourself much more than the setup line of a two-part joke. I was thinking about this the other day and it struck me that this could be an extraordinary way to blend history and fantasy in a way that’s quite different from what’s been done before. Tolkien and his modern day successor, George R.R. Martin, invented whole worlds and mythologies in the Lord of the Rings and the Game of Thrones respectively. Others, like Michael Crichton, have cannily blended history and science fiction (with a dose of cinematographic screenplay thrown in for good measure), in books like Timeline. And then there is the even more complex fantasy space occupied by works like Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, which combine historical settings and characters with fantasy and horror.

But instead, what if we took a bunch of real and fictional historical figures from different eras, different geographies, and cultures, and made them inhabit the same narrative space? What would the story-telling arc look like if we pitted Attila the Hun and Augustus Caesar against each other? Or if we sent William of Baskerville forward in time to investigate a poisonous death orchestrated by the Borgias? Of course, we may have to make appropriate concessions for the clash of eras and cultures — adjustments would be needed for at least one side of the historically mismatched characters, in terms of language and attire and worldly knowledge. But for all we know, these perceived obstacles may well turn out to be just the literary devices we need to free us from the shackles of historical fact and let us explore the unfettered world of fantasy.

Needless to say, I have looked at this idea very much from the naive perspective of someone who has not really researched whether it’s already been done. But it seemed too delicious a dessert to wait for — having sampled the appetizer, and smelled the aroma of what’s baking in the oven, can one be faulted for wanting to skip the veggies and the roughage to get straight to the final course? Moreover, if it indeed has been done before, that should be no deterrent to doing it again, and perhaps even doing it better. I think this has the makings of a meal comprised almost entirely of dessert.

Let me know what you think.


Women Writers Through the Ages

Julian of Norwich
Photo: Courtesy of The Friends of Julian of Norwich and Felicity Maton

Readers of our blog (you know who you are, all three of you!) are well aware of our abiding interest in history, good writing, and page-turning whodunits. We love it even more if all three of those areas have a happy convergence. What may be lesser known is our occasional fascination for some historical detective work of our own — whether it is wondering when the business of sleuthing began, or how the Mayan civilization collapsed, or what mysteries lie hidden in the fossils of Ariyalur.

So when my friend and collaborator, Srikrishna, sent me a recent article in the Guardian about an exhibition of manuscripts by the earliest known women writers in English, I couldn’t help but ask the obvious question: who were the first women writers in history? We have always been fans of women writers on this blog (see our previous post, which is a great starting point for anyone who wants to explore women writers of historical fiction, and our podcasts, which highlight a number of leading women writers in this genre). So I had more than enough incentive to research the answer to my self-posed question.

enheduanaAnd here’s what I found, in what I would like to think was my informed, but unscientific quest. The consensus among many historians and literary scholars is that Enheduana, a high priestess in ancient Sumeria, is not only the first female author and poet in history, but in all likelihood, the world’s first author by name, male or female. She was the daughter of King Sargon of Akkad and her poems about the goddess Inanna, written in the 3rd millennium BC, quite possibly influenced the psalms of the Hebrew Bible and the Homeric hymns of Greece. Paul Kriwaczek’s excellent history of Babylon, worth reading in its own right, offers a fascinating glimpse of Enheduana’s life and writings.

Other parts of the ancient world can equally lay claim to women writers of great avvaiyardistinction. In India, the Avvaiyars (Tamil for “wise women”), were a series of several female poets, the first of whom lived and wrote in the Sangam period, between the 1st and 2nd century AD. A second Avvaiyar lived in the Chola period in the 10th century AD, and wrote poems which remain popular even today, often recited in Tamil schools in India. In China, several sources credit the Lady Xu Mu, who lived in the 7th century AD, as being the first recorded female poet in Chinese. Her haunting poems of homesickness and longing were not only appreciated by her contemporaries from the period, but also admired by later generations. Greece, never far from any conversation about ancient culture, has its own share of the market on early women writers. Sappho’s enduring reputation as an extraordinary lyric poet of antiquity has survived the passage of time and the loss of most of her works. Plato even called her the “the tenth muse.” However, I found very little about her life, other than the broad outlines of where and when she lived (between 615 and 550 BC, on the island of Lesbos).Sappho

Regretfully, that’s about as far as I went. I know it’s a mere scratch on the surface of the vast body of women’s writing through the ages. But I would like to think it’s not half bad for a pleasant afternoon spent clicking through online sources and quaffing multiple cappuccinos (I refuse to confirm how many, out of respect for the 5th amendment). Of course, I need hardly say that being an informed fan is not the same as being an expert, so take what I have found with a grain of salt (or if you’re so inclined, a suitable glass of wine, or god forbid, multiple cappuccinos).

And do tell us what you think, especially if you feel there are other women writers from history that we should explore on this blog. We are always on the lookout for any excuse to read and write on our favorite topics!