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!

Engineers in Historical Mysteries

Mystery novels have featured a variety of protagonists – almost every profession that we encounter in our daily lives shows up in mystery novels. I’ve read cozy mysteries that feature artists, bakers, caterers, cat lovers, dog walkers, flappers, police and private detectives and even wedding organizers – well, you get the picture. Historical mysteries are a little more constrained in how their protagonists make a living. Yet they too feature a wide variety of roles – detectives, doctors, historians, politicians, soothsayers, soldiers, and spies – despite the constraints of history.

However one particular profession, that of an engineer, makes far fewer appearances in historical mysteries and surprisingly, even in regular mystery novels. But when they do, boy, do they make an impact. (disclosure: my colleague Ramesh and yours truly were both formally trained as engineers, though few are willing to publicly admit that we are such.)

Robert Harris’ Pompeii is probably the most well-known mystery to feature an engineer as its protagonist – the young Marcus Attilius Primus. The story begins with a simple tale of an engineer being despatched to solve a technical problem – not unlike one we’d encounter ourselves after a particularly violent storm or hurricane. Water supply  to the greater Naples region is affected as springs run dry and the engineer in charge of the aqueduct has disappeared. Of course as modern readers, we know – whether we are aware of it or not  – that Mt. Vesuvius is about to burst to high heavens.

Harris does a great job of building up the story, from what starts off as a simple municipal service problem that a maintenance engineer could address, to both a tale of political intrigue and nature about to let lose. The book does a great job of explaining the engineer’s role in those times. More importantly, it brings to fore the critical role that engineers played – be it laying the roads, or building the aqueducts – that allowed the Roman empire to not just grow, but thrive.

The next engineer I encountered was also one troubled by the impending explosion of Mt. Vesuvius in the short story collection Pompeii — A Day of Fire. We’ve written about it earlier in prose and in verse. The focus in this tale is on the human end of things – how his unwilling bride re-assesses our engineer hero, who’s not only older than her but seems unromantic – in light of his actions even as the world they know seems to be ending in fire and brimstone. It’s a short but sweet rendition of engineer as human.

However, Thomas K. Carpenter goes one step further, building an entire 7-book series – Alexandrian Saga. Featuring Heron of Alexander – who’s widely believed to have invented the first steam engine in the 1st century CE – the series suggests that it is actually his twin sister posing as him. Carpenter has him/her solving a variety of problems that have vexed mankind since then, starting with who might have burned the Great Library of Alexandria. Carpenter has also written a short story, The Virtues of Madness, where he shows how Temple “miracles” were performed thanks to engineers such as Heron.

The use of war machines, the building of roads, temples and major civil projects, many of which stand to this day, meant engineers played a big role in historical times. And they are beginning to get their due, none too soon, in historical mysteries too. Tell us about your favorite engineer or other professions in historical mysteries!


Books featured in this post

Robert Harris Pompeii

Stephanie Dray et.al. A Day of Fire: A Novel of Pompeii

Thomas K. Alexander Alexandrian Saga 

Thomas K. Carpenter, Virtues of Madness 

 

City as Character: La Serenissima

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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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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:

Africa

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.