Life as a writer consists of taking large things and breaking them down into littler things. If you asked me to write a history of the Macedonian Wars, the scale and complexity of the task would make it discouragingly daunting. So one week I concentrate on researching the causes of the First Macedonian War, and the next week I arrange my notes on that research into coherent form. Then I concentrate on writing 500-1000 words a day until I have completed the topic, and a year later I look up, and the book is done. (You can read it this coming November.)
Finances are handled in the same way. Twice a year the royalty cheques arrive (all publishers tend to pay at the same time), and the payment has to be carefully sliced into six, with each sixth representing a month's income until the next payout. The advance for a book is all well and good, but its a loan not a payment, and is deducted from each royalty cheque until the book starts earning its keep.
Though it may not pay that much, I and several friends in the same line of work consider ourselves pretty rich. I spent this morning happily researching Cicero's 'De Natura Deorum', and then my wife and I took a stroll along the lake to our local coffee shop and watched the sailboats. After lunch I'll have a nap, and then get stuck into the legend of Jason and the Argonauts. I'll break for a drink on the deck at four, and before supper potter around the garden and pick a few strawberries.
Perhaps the next book might be that blockbuster bestseller that earns me millions. But apart from building a full-sized library extension on to the side of the house, I'm not sure there's that much else I'd change.
Ah, indexing time has come around again. I have to say that I sometimes envy the writers of fiction who never have to come up with a reference to what kind of armour their dragon riders (or whoever) were wearing at whatever battle they have decided to invent. I on the other hand, have to dig out my old copy of Robinson to ensure that the armour is correct, document this for my references and index, and then cross-check it with archaeological reports of the battle in question to make sure that the armour did indeed appear at that time.
And then my friendly editor will probably note that though I have the book and author noted in my references, I've omitted the page number so please can I go back and check that too. And of course I do, firstly because she won't stop until I've done it, but secondly because that's part of the job. While I like to spout off prose in a fine literary frenzy, doing history means nailing your opinions to verifiable facts, and being able to produce those facts when challenged.
This means that sometimes a casual comment taking up all of two lines can be the result of an afternoon's rooting around a library, or on occasion requiring a physical check of the actual site or artifact in question. (This is often done by long-suffering friends who know better than to mention a trip to Greece Italy or Turkey, lest they get stuck with several additions to their itinerary.)However, there is a definite satisfaction when an elusive reference or obscure fact is finally tracked down and firmly attributed. It's a very uncomfortable feeling knowing that you've put something into a draft text when you're not sure where that particular factlet came from.
In my good books
I remember someone remarking after a minor gas explosion 'The funny thing about eyelashes is that you never miss them until they are gone.'
In the same way, I've always taken my research library for granted. It's been sitting there, quietly growing at the rate of about a dozen books a month for about the last thirty years. There are some books that go a decade without being opened, and then never leave my desk for a fortnight. Other well-used books still have bus tickets as bookmarks from when I first read them as a student whilst commuting to University College in London.
The thing is, I know approximately in what book to find what information, and often pick up some extra detail that I'd forgotten about at the same time. It was all there, vaguely sorted into Greek and Roman sections, just an arm's reach away. Until it wasn't.
For twelve weeks I had to wait whilst my library made its way from Hamburg to Panama and up the Pacific west coast. It was a horribly unsettling time when every fact was an elusive beast that needed stalking and checking through the internet and then had to be rechecked by badgering long-suffering friends who still had the appropriate books on hand.
With my books back and undamaged by their long trip, I find their comforting presence on the shelves some recompense for the multiple hernias risked by the delivery men who unwarily tried to lift them off the truck. I now have probably the largest classics library in British Columbia west of the Rockies.
And prospective visitors to chez Maty should note; should I have to choose between saving the books or a guest from a house fire, I know exactly where my duty will lie.
Of whats and whys
Historians will generally agree that the two major issues that concern them are 'what happened' and 'why did it happen'? I got to thinking about this after an eminent reviewer (who rather vehemently dislikes my approach) took me to task for writing 'narrative history' which risks being 'one damn thing after another'.
And it's true. I happily plead guilty to preferring the 'what happened' aspect. This is partly because I like to write on subjects that have a strong narrative, and partly because many of my readers would actually like to have the facts before plunging into the argument. Not everyone wants to read (for example) of 'The effect of Viriathus on elections in the Comitia Centuriata' without knowing who Viriathus was and what he did.
A further problem with the 'why it happened' school is that in telling readers what to think, the author has to be very careful lest he get between the reader and the subject, filters events through his own beliefs and prejudices, and ends up with history as polemic. And polemic goes out of date awfully quickly.
To some extent, simply re-telling a story means that one has to re-interpret it. But as far as possible I prefer my readers to make up their own minds how to understand that story. It's a fortunate truth that ancient history is full of relevant, interesting - even exciting - events which deserve re-telling for their own sakes, and that's what I do. Where the facts are disputed or there is a controversy, I'll point this out and show where further details are to be found. Then it's back to 'one damn thing after another' - and I love it.
Tempora mutantur, nos et mutamur in illis
'The times change, and we are changed by the times'. So remarked Cicero, and so say I after something of a whirlwind two months.
Last time I wrote, I was busily wrapping up another book and preparing for the yuletide festivities in the mountains of snowbound Austria. I'm still in snowbound mountains, though now they are the Canadian Rockies, where I'm going to be for a while. It was always our intention to give the new world a try sooner or later, but the economic situation made it expedient to opt for sooner.
So January saw me negotiating the vagaries of the Canadian bureaucracy, packing our home, sorting out the final details of the two books I'm hoping to see come into print in 2009, and teaching a class of students on 'Athens and the fifth Century Intellectual Revolution' for the Cambridge University eLearning program.
(Actually, 'me' here generally means my long-suffering wife. Without her administrative skills, the cat and I would currently be homeless somewhere along the road to Innsbruck airport.)
The main issue now is waiting in suspense to see if about a dozen large crates of academic books will make it safely over the Atlantic and rejoin me at the end of the month. If anything happens to them, I'd suggest buying shares in Amazon Canada while I desperately try to restock my research library.
Meanwhile, have you tried this maple syrup stuff? It gives my breakfast porridge an odd but definitely intriguing flavour.